Part One: Susan Straight Week
[After Christmas, I resolved to reward myself for a good year of reading which included research, books read for professional reviewing and reading groups, as well as plenty of pleasure reading. I was going to take a week and read the four Susan Straight novels I had not yet read. In actuality it took me two and a half weeks but it was so fine to immerse myself in an author's work and bring myself from early to present. I have now read all of her novels. This week I will post about one of them each day.]
There are certain novelists, mostly women but some men as well, whose theme is the power and strength of family. Susan Straight embraces this with the underlying theme of the effect of racism on the American family. In 1995 I read her first novel, I've Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots, published in 1993. Being a musician, I picked the book for its title, which sounded like a blues song, but I knew nothing about the author. I was struck by the intense truths she wove into a story of a single African American mother who raised her two sons with care, giving them the skills and moral character needed to survive the violence and fractured nature of black urban life.
I could not figure out how a white woman from Southern California could write with such insight and authority about Black people. Later of course, I learned that she had married a Black man from her hometown of Riverside, CA. She lived surrounded by Black culture while they had three daughters. Susan and that man later divorced but remained friends. Their daughters have been raised amidst the extended families of both parents.
This author likes numbers (Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights, A Million Nightingales.) She creates the surroundings of her stories by taking the reader through the same streets, over and over; by following the dawns, mornings, afternoons, sundowns and nights of consecutive days. She has an uncanny ability to put you inside the skin and minds of characters whether they are Black, White, Mexican or Asian, until you finally stop seeing these characters through your own racial, economic and experiential framework but somehow enter each one's consciousness. Her pace is leisurely even when events of great moment are taking place.
Blacker Than A Thousand Midnights begins with Darnell Tucker on the cusp of adulthood. When he returns from a season of fighting fires in the mountains surrounding Rio Seco, he finds his girlfriend pregnant and wants to do right by her, but lacking any prospects he feels deeply insecure about beginning the straight and narrow life of a family man. (Rio Seco is Straight's imaginary town based on Riverside. All of her fiction is anchored there, much like William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.) It doesn't help Darnell that his future wife is pathologically afraid of the fires he loves to fight or that his friends jeer at his pussywhipped status.
Rio Seco is booming with the gated housing communities mushrooming in the hills surrounding widened freeways and filling up with escapees from Los Angeles. In the Black and Mexican neighborhoods drugs, rap music and shiftless youth live side by side with the gardeners, domestic workers, auto repairmen and shopkeepers. Tensions run high in sprawling webs of interactions between so many racial and economic differences.
Darnell struggles with and weaves through all of it as he develops his sense of self and builds a business caring for the lawns of the new upscale citizens. His parents, relatives and life-long friends are sources of strength but also of annoyance and temptation while the lure of the fires with their beauty and violence threaten to tear him away.
I was impressed by the way Straight traces Darnell's development as a father and husband. While he is no exemplary model of parenthood, he has plenty of heart and a sense of humor. The story deepens the themes and issues of I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen, being the next stage of life for boys raised in the hood of Rio Seco. By the end, Susan Straight had once again put her spell on me.