Between Heaven and Here/Susan Straight: Reflections

Sunday, December 16, 2012

For many weeks I had looked toward this weekend as a time to read some of the many books that have come to me from friends, or that I bought myself.  In the wake of Friday's news, I have, like you, been paralyzed.  There simply are no words.  There is less goodness in the world.

I don't know how any of us move forward—how we leave those suffering behind in our thoughts.  I was grateful for church this morning.  I was grateful for the dark mist of sad weather, for sun would not have been right today.

The book that I have managed to carry with me through this weekend is Between Heaven and Here, bought from a New and Noteworthy shelf at a nearby bookstore back in October, by my long-time friend Susan Straight, who has won countless awards and prizes—deservedly.  She lives in and is inspired by her own Riverside, CA.  Since the very start of what is now a stunning novel career, she has looked toward what most of us cannot see—the lives of those imperiled by gangs, crack, meth, poverty, injustice, prejudice, and bittersweet (but mostly bitter) histories. 

Between Heaven and Here is part of a trilogy framed by A Million Nightingales and Take One Candle Light a Room.  It is a small book with a large cast.  It sweeps back and forth over many years and two states, and through horrific crimes present and past.  It centers on the death of Glorette Picard, a beautiful streetwalker and crack addict whose son, Victor, studies SAT words and is determined to forge a path out of a proud but battered lineage.  Faulkner-like, it circles Glorette's burial—nearly impossible given the hard sheen of a sun-dried earth.

Susan has always written sentences that crackle and steam.  She has fabricated characters whose talk is so real and whose conditions are so palpable that we are sure that Susan herself has sat among them, genuine and listening.

In this novel—a novel of assembled parts, of intersecting stories, of clocks moved ahead and moved backward, then stopped—Susan's sentences stunned me at most every turn.  Here are just a few of them.  Here's what Susan Straight can do with an image:

Gustave touched her collarbone.  The knob of bone where it had healed, after she'd broken it falling from an orange tree.  He couldn't touch her hair.  When she was fourteen, the flesh of her body had rearranged itself, and her eyes had grown watchful under the fur of eyebrows and eyelashes.  Her hair had come out of the braids his wife made every morning, and she had coated her eyelashes with crankcase oil and painted her lips, and disappeared into her room.  The fear of her beauty wound its way through his entrails.

The Santa Ana was so shallow and clear that he waded across it, kept on through the sandy earth past the river, the willows that smelled medicinal, and came to the eucalyptus windbreak all along the citrus.  

"Whatever," the boy said.  Felonise let herself look at him.  Reddish-brown hair in shiny spikes, like a wet cat sat on his skull.


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