She's gotta do it: write in the language of the people she knows, filling the pitcher to overflowing. It started with "Aquaboogie," linked stories set in her hometown of Riverside, peopled with her people, perched on the sides of dry river beds, always running, getting in and out of trouble, making up stories, talking in vernacular so fast and brazen it was hard to believe it came from out East on the 10 Freeway. Six books and many prizes later, Straight is still writing books that bring national attention to the Other Southern California, the off ramps and alleyways of the desert towns east of Los Angeles, places where swimming pools and movie deals seem an impossible dream away. No place for Malibu Barbie.
All of Straight's books are peopled and they all are linked. Even the reader feels like a climber on belay — if one of those characters falls, we're all going down, the whole culture. If they can't find solace in community then certainly those of us who purchase our privacy at a high cost have no hope of sustaining connections or enduring relationships. She tends to save them, it's true. Even in "Highwire Moon," a National Book Award finalist in 2001, the book that is most painfully full of human error, Straight finds a way to make the stories of the ancestors count for something, to be a source of strength right on down through the generations.
It's no different here in this high-speed car chase of a novel. Scenes from FX Antoine's childhood blur by as she hunts for her missing godson, Victor. Her real name is Fantine and she calls herself a vagabond, but with increasingly rare visits she's really a tourist in her own childhood neighborhood, Rio Seco, east of L.A. FX is a travel writer for the New York Times and Vogue, etc. When the novel opens, she's just back from Switzerland and her family in Rio Seco is calling her to come home for the five-year anniversary of the death of her best friend, Glorette. Glorette's 22-year-old son, Victor, is in trouble, wobbling on the knife edge between erudition and survival.
There is a history of violence. Fantine's mother and her aunts were raped and threatened back in Louisiana by the local big man, until her father had to send his wife and girls to California and take the law into his own hands. Glorette, too beautiful to be safe on the streets of Rio Seco, was found murdered in a shopping cart. Victor's father was also murdered. FX is on her way to reinventing herself, knowing the whole time that no matter how many clean, white shirts you wear and places you visit, you can't escape your ancestors.
In the beginning, as Straight sets the scene, the novel comes on almost too strong — the voices too loud, the vernacular too deep, the characters already fixed in their alignments. As she loosens her grip on the novel and lets her characters invent their own steps, you realize you've never seen writing like this about this part of Southern California — the parking lots and backyards, the dusty foliage no one bothers to name. Not only does she hope to illuminate the dusty corners, she wants to put this part of the country on the national literary map. Straight writes about the Paloma dump the way F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the Long Island Expressway: "La Paloma rose up beside the freeway, a low mountain with its own ecosystem of spindly eucalyptus trees and fountain grass all around the base — to hide what the huge mound really was. Our refuse. Our midden. The place someone would excavate to know about us in hundreds of years."
If there's any excavation in literature to find who lived in the villages and tribes of 21st century California, Straight will provide the pictures and stories of lives lived beyond Los Feliz (where FX lives) and even beyond Rio Seco, "to the very edge of the city limits, to the orange groves near the river."
We wade through the language that is unfamiliar and sometimes frustrating because it is unfamiliar: "After another year of loving the man who got ghost on her, she left Grady to get sprung herself — on rock cocaine — and she refused to ever love anyone again." We guess the unfamiliar usage just as we would if we were reading poetry. And in this way the language is stretched, groaning because it is so full of new meaning, old new meaning. We need writers like Straight to capture the sound of each new generation into perpetuity, to keep stretching the language.
Straight will be reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Skylight Books.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun