Summary: Tony Loneman
Tony Loneman is a twenty-one-year-old Native American living in Oakland. He was born with fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), which he calls “the Drome.” He first noticed the signs of FAS in his facial features when he was in elementary school, after a boy named Mario asked about his face. Tony cannot look at his reflection without seeing the Drome and seeing himself as others see him. Even though he is old enough to drink, he chooses not to, believing that he already got enough alcohol in utero. As a child, Tony scored in the lowest percentile on an intelligence test. Karen, Tony’s counselor at the Indian Center, told him that he has strong intuition and street smarts. The Drome has taught Tony how to read people’s thoughts toward him.
Tony’s mother is in prison, and his father does not know that he exists. Tony lives with his grandmother, Maxine, whom he has tremendous respect for. She has told Tony that he is a medicine person—he looks different because he is special. Tony enjoys the rapper MF Doom because he regularly gets the references in the lyrics, which makes him feel smart.
Tony is large, strong, and intimidating. He thinks that someday he might do something notable that will force everyone to finally look at him without looking away. He has been selling marijuana since he was thirteen. He feels connected to his drug supplier, Octavio, because Octavio has great respect for his own grandmother. After a successful summer of selling cocaine to white boys from Oakland hills, Tony goes to Octavio’s house where Octavio shows him a 3-D printed gun. He tells Tony that they are going to rob a powwow at the Oakland Coliseum. Octavio asks Tony to hide a sock full of bullets in the bushes, and to wear his Native regalia from when he used to dance at powwows. Octavio says that normally he would not be involved in armed robbery, but he owes people money. When Tony puts on his regalia and looks at himself, he does not see the Drome—he sees a Native dancer.
Summary: Dene Oxendene
Dene Oxendene lives in Oakland with his mother, Norma. He is half-Native and half-white but looks “ambiguously nonwhite.” He started tagging, or graffitiing public property, with the name “Lens” when he was in middle school. The same day he started tagging, his uncle Lucas came over to visit. Lucas worked as a boom mic operator but also had many movie ideas of his own, which he never seriously pursued. When Lucas visited, Dene found out that his uncle was dying of liver failure, due to a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Lucas told Dene that he had been working on a project, recording interviews with various Native Americans around Oakland. Lucas set up the camera and let people tell their stories. Lucas told Dene that they should make a short movie together, using a hand-grip camera that Lucas owned. The night that Dene learned of Lucas’s death, he ran out of the house with the camera, unable to sit in his grief. On his way back home, he filmed his surroundings. When he returned, he tried to consider what it was like for his mother to lose her brother.
In the present, Dene rides a train to an interview with a panel of judges who are awarding cultural arts grants. On the way, he listens to “There There” by Radiohead and sees his tag, Lens, on a train station wall. Outside the interview room, Dene meets a bald, white hipster. The hipster talks to Dene about a quote from Gertrude Stein regarding Oakland: “There is no there there.” Dene, who looked up quotes about Oakland in preparation for his project, believes that the hipster does not understand the context of the quote. He feels that the quote applies to all of the ancestral Native lands that have been developed with concrete, glass and steel. “There” is no longer the place that it was.
During the interview with the panel, Dene tells the committee that he wants to continue his uncle’s project, filming Native storytellers and compensating them with the grant money. Dene does not mention that his uncle’s interviews had scripts. He is unsure of the scripts’ origins. On the train ride home, Dene smiles, believing that he has secured $5000 in grant money.
Although Tony Loneman is not part of the fractured kin relationships that form the book’s core, his chapter introduces its central plot, the plan to rob a powwow, and one of its key thematic concerns, the structure of intergenerational trauma. In Tony’s case this trauma is available for all to see for he suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, a disease that marks his face, his intelligence, and his self-control. As in the Prologue, this fact, Tony’s inherited disease, turns out to be open to interpretation. Some see it as evidence that he is a villain-to-be, while those who care about him counter that it indicates he is intuitive and gifted. Tony vacillates between these interpretations, trying to determine which will define his path.
The idea that external measures or standards are an inadequate reflection of individual character shapes this chapter in an important way. Twice Tony spies the reflection of his face and experiences a moment of misrecognition, seeing something else. This happens at its opening when he sees the Drome reflected in the blank screen of a television, and again at its close, when putting on regalia transforms him into a Native dancer. Like the Indian head test pattern from the Prologue, these reflections are less about who Tony is as a person than labels that can be applied to him. In between these scenes, Tony regularly thinks about perception, particularly the disparity between cultural assumptions about disability or indigeneity and individual possibility. Tony uses the verb “read” when talking about interpretation, a choice that connects the act of reading the novel to engaging with these issues of perception.
The project Dene Oxendene pitches to the funding agency reflects many of the same themes explored in There There itself, a book that chronicles stories of the Urban Indian. Dene is a figure for the author himself, as the acknowledgments make clear, furthering this idea. He worries that some of the experiences in the project might be “scripted,” literally by the uncle who started the project and generally by American culture. He wants for his film to be different, in other words, from the images that Tony sees on the TV screen of stereotypes and labels. After Dene concludes his pitch, one of the panelists wonders if it’s possible to tell a coherent story without a central directorial angle. Because Dene takes up his uncle’s project after his death, the question resonates on many levels. Dene isn't sure he can tell his uncle’s story correctly. His fear is linked to the issues of authenticity and creativity to which the book often returns.