There There by Tommy Orange: A Review

There There by Tommy Orange:  A Review

Like an unfinished puzzle, There There made me want to start it over again immediately after finishing. 

Protagonists abound; one voice per chapter, characters and families that seem at first unrelated, united only by living in Oakland and by their Native American roots.  Connections are revealed like excavations only partially uncovered, with the ultimate shape hinted at but uncertain.

Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield is Jacquie Red Feather’s sister.  Orvil and Lony and Loother Red Feather call Opal Grandma.  Thomas Frank and Edwin Black and Blue all work at the Indian Center.  Dene Oxendene’s uncle Lucas was like a brother to Opal.  Daniel Gonzales is Octavio Gomez’s cousin, whose influence over brothers Carlos, Charles and Calvin Johnson is forged with blood. Tony Loneman’s name is purposeful. Bill Davis works at the Oakland Coliseum, where the Big Oakland Powwow will encompass them all.

Author Tommy Orange gives us vivid word photographs, then infuses them with subjective truths, like the interviews that Dene captures: authentic, vulnerable, determined.  Storm forces echo throughout There There. These Oakland residents survive in the aftermath of a great disaster:  they labor through gulfs of knowledge, severed connections, missing persons, material poverty, and the variety of medicines used to treat trauma. Their stories are specific and yet familiar to many living in this Town.

I wonder, does the degree to which the reader identifies with the people in There There depend on their own experiences of being “Urban Natives”?  This gifted author walks a shifting line, dances with the book’s main question: what does it mean to be Native?

For more insights into the experiences of “Urban Natives” in the Bay Area, read this article by Joe Whittle.


Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon


The word is out about Heavy. Currently there are 41 Holds on the library’s 15 copies, and we have ordered more. Glowing reviews in the New York Times, LA Times, Entertainment Weekly and on NPR have spread the word. This one is not to be missed.

Heavy is about a young black man growing up mostly in Jackson, Mississippi, shaped by his brilliant yet punitive mother’s powerful presence like a blacksmith shapes a sword. What is it like to be the steel, beaten and heated and tested? Kiese Laymon shapes the readers’ experience with utmost skill, letting us feel both his brilliance and his painful, relentless search for answers.

Laymon’s use of second person, speaking to his mother throughout the narrative, creates a profound intimacy. He seems to be working within his own circle, questioning how and why his complex relationship with his mother, and through her, with the rest of his loved ones and the world, made him struggle into becoming himself.

My life shares some aspects of Kiese Laymon’s experiences: our large size at an early age, our tough maternal grandmothers, our reliance on reading and writing more than others. We both went to local prestigious private colleges where we felt like fish out of water, and from which neither of us graduated. We both floundered, and both eventually left home.

These experiences were a bridge for me to Laymon's other truths that I can’t pretend to really understand.  Laymon eventually becomes a college professor and writer, while supporting family back in Mississippi and compulsively gambling the rest of his money away. He leaves behind his large body, but not the obsession with size.  His relationships suffer, and he breaks ties with his mother for years. Their eventual reunion is not a Hollywood ending.

There is no way to untangle the personal influences of family and community with the greater societal realities of being black in America, in the South, and in academia.  There is no way to separate a body, whether big and getting bigger, or thin and getting ever thinner, from the world in which it operates. There is no way to understand what is known, what is hidden, what is truth and what is lies, in a shifting time-stream that reveals and hides as it flows.  All we can do is continue to listen, continue to speak.

The craft and courage with which Kiese Laymon explores his truths, the awe-inspiring use of precise language and poetic repetition, is a gift to his readers.  Heavy: an American Memoir offers an opportunity to listen and to be known.

Exploring Queer Lives: By Nightfall

By Nightfall novel jacket black tulip facing downThe Hours novel jacket

Michael Cunningham’s  By Nightfall is a gorgeously written novel that reveals the inner life of Peter, an art dealer and gallery owner in his 40’s who finds himself powerfully drawn to his wife’s beautiful, directionless  younger brother.  Michael Cunningham is the prize-winning author of many novels, including The Hours, which he has described as a tribute to Virginia Woolf.  Here a similar stream of consciousness style lets the reader live through Peter’s emotional earthquake and its surprising aftermath. 

Although the central tension comes from a man’s attraction to another man, By Nightfall is not about “being gay”. Gender as a factor of desire is a fascinating aspect of the story, evoking many speculations. It’s a story about a person who contemplates abandoning his life's work and partner for a brief affair with a wild card visitor, one who evokes associations with past passions.  It’s a story about the New York art world, artists and gallery owners, real genius and manufactured artistic product.  It’s a story about the art of life, chaos and craft, manipulation and spontaneity, and the precarious balance between them.  If there is such a thing as “post-gay”, By Nightfall exemplifies it with seamless integration of queerness into the human narrative.


Looking for LGBTQ Winners: The Lambda Literary Review

I love weird stories, anything with magic or strange happenings. I also love queer stories. Where do I look for the latest, greatest, weird, queer book reviews?

My go-to website for great LGBTQ reading choices of any genre is the Lambda Literary Review.  This comprehensive resource is the digital offspring of The Lambda Book Report, first published in 1987 out of Lambda Rising Bookstore in Washington, DC. Lambda Literary has evolved into “the world’s premier LGBT literary organization”, awarding the annual Lambda Literary Awards or “Lammys”, sponsoring writers retreats, and maintaining a content-rich website. (

I always start with the Genre category, nicely separated into sub-genres such as Romance, Mystery, and (my favorite) Speculative Fiction. I also peruse the General Fiction and Bio/Memoirs.  Also reviewed are Poetry, Young Adult, Non-fiction, Illustrated, Anthology, Drama and Film.  Reviews are written by LGBTQ writers and artists.  The website has other helpful resources, such as lists of all the Lammy winners for years past, interviews with authors, feature articles, an online book club, calls for submissions (for all the writers out there), and other topical information.

So now you know how OPL stays current with the latest LGBTQ offerings!

Memoir or Fiction: Exploring Queer Lives

A beautiful young man pursues sex, love and a modeling career in the exhilarating and heartbreaking gay circles of New York City circa the 1970s and 1980s. Fiction or memoir? Why not both? The authors are celebrated writers in the LGBTQ community known for their achievements in the fields of literature, memoir and biography: Edmund White and Brad Gooch.

Our Young Man by Edmund White, clearly a modern take on The Picture of Dorian Gray, paints a rather bland portrait of Guy, a French model who does not seem to age as he partakes in the gay whirl of New York, Fire Island, and Paris. Guy is remote, almost untouchable; failing as a boy-toy, trying again as the trophy partner of a wealthy older man, and playing the fool for a young ne’er-do-well who ends up in prison.  While surrounded by beauty, money, desire and success, Guy seems to be a stereotype of the shallow model, never really rising above a vaguely misanthropic irritability.  All around him AIDS rages, and he finds himself caring for his dying older partner, and then entangled with a younger one. Despite having all the right ingredients for a moving and exciting tale, the novel portrays a man who seems bloodless, his beautiful exterior a passport into a world he can’t fully feel. Perhaps a stunned survivor of these decades would require a measured distance to tell such a tale. 

Smash Cut : a Memoir of Howard & Art & the '70s & the '80s by Brad Gooch details his real-life love story with Howard Brookner, a film maker, in the artistic crucible of New York in the 70’s and 80’s. It is more than lust at first sight. The two pursue their creative endeavors in a shared life full of art, parties, sex, drugs, and long letters to each other; hobnobbing with notables like William Burroughs, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Madonna. The bittersweet wisdom of hindsight permeates Brad’s memories. He casts his own successful modeling career as the villain that comes between the lovers, with a minor role for Howard’s drug use. Like most great love stories, this is a tragedy. Howard contracts HIV; Brad doesn’t. In this confessional yet crafted tale, I found the juice that seemed missing from Our Young Man. I felt like I knew the author by the end of this book, or at least the Brad Gooch that stood at his lover’s graveside and wept, and I shed a tear with him.

Have you ever read a novel that led you into the biography section of the library, or visa versa? Leave us a comment or recommendation.

(Note: Smash cut is available through Link+ until a copy is received for OPL's collection.)

Photo of Brad Gooch from NYTimes Review April 2015