Susan Straight has remarkable range as a writer. Her voice can be elegant in the rhythms and vocabulary of her narrative, yet also blunt and raw in dialogue. In her latest novel, Between Heaven and Here, the third of a trilogy set in a relatively out-of-the-way California city which Straight calls Rio Seco, her writing surrounds the reader with an enormous sense of life, both at its best and at its worst. Her work is so intensely alive in its movement, action, and in the speech of her characters that reading it is almost like being caught in the center of a storm: exhausting but exhilarating at the same time.
Straight’s work has been short-listed for the National Book Award and other various prizes. It is pertinent that she dedicates this third volume of the trilogy to her own city of origin, the name of which is not revealed. The inscription reads only: “To my hometown, everyone who left and everyone who stayed behind.”
But whatever Straight’s relationship to Rio Seco, the book does not pretend to be autobiographical. Instead, Straight includes as much as she can of this city’s life – its accents and verbal rhythms, its social strata, its landscapes, flora and fauna – and its limitations as well. She weaves into her scenario portraits of as many of the city’s people as she can: some who seem quiet and home-loving, yet are effectively successful murderers; others who are drug dealers with their flock of eager clients, and others still; the despairing relatives of addicts or their beggared children, whose lives, like teeter-totters, go up and down with the vagaries of addiction’s needs.
As in every community, there are also stable and compassionate citizens who manage to hold their lives together and do what they can for those around them – even if that’s all too often beyond their capabilities. As might be expected, a wide range of emotions and traits is encompassed in their stories. Racism, hostility, the desire for escape, as well as envy and greed, loom large, but so do compassion and generosity, as unexpected and welcome as out-of-season rain.
Straight brings us within reach of as many of Rio Seco’s citizens as she can in this last volume of her trilogy, confronting us, too, with self-righteous householders who pass their attitudes about race and economic privilege to their children. She even allows us to observe a crew of hard-hat laborers on a construction site, where, on one workday, they encounter a post-adolescent prostitute who’s been mutilated by a client. Some of the laborers indeed do what they can to please themselves, but others attempt to understand and perhaps even to relieve the young woman’s pain. Throughout all these scenarios are woven the images of roving exploiters, passing through what they see as an inferior city, which cannot compare in splendor or complexity to Los Angeles or New York.
The first pages of the novel place the reader in a dark alleyway, bordered by a taqueria and a “Launderland” where rock cocaine is hidden in one of the dryers for convenient sale. A man, whom we meet only as Sidney, who long ago migrated here from Louisiana with his family, comes out of the taqueria holding a bag of tacos when he notices a woman, half kneeling beside a fence under the wild tobacco trees. As often happens in a small city, this woman turns out to be someone he knows; in fact, she is the major subject of all Sidney’s dreams. She too is from Louisiana and has been his ideal woman since their adolescence, long before. And yes, she is still the most beautiful woman among her peers, despite her hopeless addiction to the “rock.” Her name is Glorette Picard, and she was once Sidney’s neighbor in Sarrat, an outlying district of Rio Seco.
She must be on her knees waiting, Sidney thinks. The man would be against the fence, getting his money. Or the drugs. … Glorette had been sprung for years, living here on the Westside, moving from apartment to apartment just ahead of the rent.
But as Sidney continues to watch Glorette, he realizes that she isn’t waiting for a client after all. Her “eyes were open…Her face…upturned, her lips parted like she was having trouble breathing, and her neck curved long and golden.”
The immediate assumption is that Glorette has died of an overdose, but Sidney—who brings her to her family’s home—begins to realize that she might be the victim of a murder. He and others begin to speculate about who would have wanted to kill her, and why.
Among the major figures who surround Glorette’s death are the people who loved her throughout her life and who love her still. Her own two greatest loves are the rock cocaine itself, which she consumed as voraciously as she could; and her son, Victor, who despite the circumstances of his birth and his often terrifying childhood, emerges with a brilliant mind and a sense of loyalty to those who helped him. Young Victor is the third highest achiever in his high school class. As with so many characters throughout the book – particularly the young – this reader finds herself rooting for him, believing that he may be able to escape the limitations of his upbringing, and find his way into the life that he deserves.
What’s wonderful about Straight’s dialogue is that it’s rendered in an inimitable, localized argot, fully comprehensible yet reflective of the speakers’ origins as well as where they may end up. Glorette’s speech is an exciting mixture of the accent of her Louisiana homeland and the argot of Rio Seco’s streets. The mélange of voices in Straight’s work creates a plangent refrain, like a strain of music underlying everything that happens to her characters: their choices, their desires, and their habits, all of which she unflinchingly and compassionately describes.
The locality of which she writes – a painfully dry but beautiful land – is a make-believe but vividly realistic city. It really does seem as if an invisible river flows as an undercurrent beneath the bargain stores and bars and broken, littered streets, and beneath people’s lives as well. It’s mysterious, this dry, hidden river. How odd it is, that a book so filled with death and violence can end with so much hope. Glorette has died; she is mourned and buried, but the book’s final scene is both startling and fulfilling in its own way, as is the entirety of Between Heaven and Here, this saga of a small, seemingly hopeless city, beneath which, nonetheless, a hidden river runs.