The State by Tommy Orange, 2018
The magic trick:
Glimmers of hope and beauty that somehow only make the story even sadder
An Oakland story through and through, but the narrator’s family goes back to Oklahoma, and the narrator’s family tree feels particularly impactful on his story. So we run it here in Oklahoma week on SSMT.
Essentially, the narrator is telling us about what’s happened to him during the last week. We get plenty of backstory and supporting details along the way. But the heart of the story is this most recent week. It’s a strange diary of depression, really.
All of his life is a strange combination of things that could be beautiful but continue to be crushed by the reality of his poverty and own self-destruction. In that way, the story – the drum class, the potential for community, the dreams of future deliverance – can fill you with optimism. But because the glimmers of hope mostly only remain glimmers, they mainly serve only to highlight the profound sadness and disconnection that predominates the story and this man’s life.
And that’s quite a trick on Orange’s part.
The name of your drum group is Southern Moon. You joined a year after you started working at the Indian Center as a janitor. You’re supposed to say custodian now, or maintenance person, but you’ve always thought of yourself as a janitor. When you were sixteen, you went on a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit your uncle—your mom’s brother. He took you to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where you discovered James Hampton. He was an artist, a Christian, a mystic, a janitor. James Hampton ended up meaning everything to you. Anyway, being a janitor was just a job. It paid the rent, and you could have your earphones in all day. No one wants to talk to the guy cleaning up. The earphones are an additional service. People don’t have to pretend to be interested in you because they feel bad that you’re taking their trash out from under their desk and giving them a fresh bag.
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