Every once in a while, a critic gets to start a review with the words: Every once in a while. Tommy Orange’s There There is one of those remarkable debuts that doesn’t come around too often: a groundbreaker. It’s a furious, eloquent, propulsive, multi-voiced portrait of an assemblage of urban Native Americans – city-dwellers as opposed to Indians who live on the “rez” – whose paths will cross, fatefully, at a big powwow in California’s Oakland Coliseum.
The novel’s title comes from Gertrude Stein’s famous remark in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas about her hometown, Oakland, being so changed that “there was no there there anymore” – though it also carries undertones of that soothing incantation, There, there, with its subtle pain-denying command to settle down. Orange’s point is that what Stein observed about Oakland happened all over the Americas to Native people, whose world has been erased by development, leaving only “buried ancestral land, glass and concrete and wire and steel, unreturnable covered memory. There is no there there.”
Yet, among Orange’s achievements in this powerful, polyphonic, “hella sad” novel is to locate the missing “there” — by painting a disturbing but compassionate picture of how historical displacement has reverberated in the lives of a group of descendents of indigenous Americans in contemporary Oakland. The book’s intricate construction shows the mark of intensive work and revision. In chapters that alternate between the personal stories of more than a dozen characters, Orange gradually reveals the connections between them as he builds to an explosive climax that comes to feel sadly inevitable. With impressive skill, he fires off the book’s beautifully written, devastating final chapters in rapid succession, like bullets.
No one can accuse Orange of being a writer with nothing to say, though he doesn’t always trust his fiction to convey his message, or his readers to get it. Thus, a fierce prologue provides explicit background with an overview of “the 500-year-old genocidal campaign”first unleashed on Native Americans by Pilgrims in 1623. Later, Orange interrupts his narrative with an interlude that spells out not only the role of powwows, but his novel’s methodology, both of which he’s already made quite clear: “We made powwows because we needed a place to be together….We all came to the Big Oakland Powwow for different reasons. The messy, dangling strands of our lives got pulled into a braid—tied to the back of everything we’d been doing all along to get us there.”
First among the characters whose “messy, dangling strands” get woven into this neat narrative braid: Tony Loneman, a Fetal Alcohol Syndrome baby who’s prone, even as a large young man, to violent outbursts. Through a life of torment, he has been sustained by his grandmother and a female counselor at the Indian Center (who later emerges as a linchpin in Orange’s tightly interlocked chain of characters). Yet even with their support, and even though he knows better, Tony still gets tangled up with drug dealers and a “doomed-ass plan” to rob the Big Oakland Powwow with 3D-printed white plastic guns.
The counselor’s boyfriend, Bill, an old maintenance worker at the Coliseum, knows about the consequences of being at the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people – that’s what landed him in San Quentin as a young Vietnam veteran. He expresses impatience with the younger generation, so many of whom lack “scope…vision…depth.” More and more, the world seems to this avid Oakland A’s fan like “a mean curveball thrown by an overly excited, steroid-fueled kid pitcher.”
Not all of Orange’s characters are demons or saints. He quotes Baudelaire to make sure we get the point: “Life swarms with innocent monsters.” He also zeroes in on plenty of people who aren’t monsters at all, yet who suffer collateral damage from others’ regrettable behavior – heroin babies among them. Orange takes us into a bus station bathroom where a woman fleeing her abusive husband hides out in a stall. We meet two half-sisters who spend decades getting over their rocky childhood, which ended abruptly with their mother’s death. One harrowing sequence chronicles their passive participation in the Indian occupation of Alcatraz in 1970, where they lived for a time in dank, abandoned prison cells because their shattered, evicted family had no place else to go.
Orange’s novel is full of men and women wrecked on the rocks of alcoholism. A recovered alcoholic leading an AA meeting at a conference on suicide prevalence and prevention comments, “There’s not some special relationship between Indians and alcohol. It’s just what’s cheap, available, legal. It’s what we have to go to when it seems like we have nothing else left.”
Like many of his characters, Orange is half-white, and an enrolled member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes who grew up in Oakland. His surname, he points out in the Interlude, is typical of the monikers slapped on Natives (“just like the name Indian itself”) by white men “when they decided they needed to keep track of us”– names of American generals like Sherman and Lee, descriptions and botched translations like Tallchief and Has No Horse, and sometimes just colors like Blue or Orange.
Among the grandmothers, janitors, counselors, drummers, dancers, schemers and dreamers who populate There There, two characters stand out as most closely channeling the author’s perspective. Both are educated, half-white, and raised by strong single mothers who encourage them in their dreams of documenting stories of urban Natives’ experiences in Oakland, whether on paper or through a StoryCorps-like program. Like so many of Orange’s characters, they rue how little they know about their Indian background beyond what they’ve managed to learn online. They share a fondness for circular declarations like “We get used to everything to the point that we even get used to getting used to everything.”
Along with so many of this novel’s compelling characters, these two young men share the conviction that keeping Native history and traditions alive is of vital importance. A teenager who comes to the powwow to dance dressed in his grandmother’s regalia speaks for them all when he tells his younger brothers, “We gotta carry it on…If we don’t they might disappear.” With There There, Tommy Orange has certainly done his bit, not only keeping history alive but adding a significant new chapter to Native American literature.