What makes Susan Straight’s work special is her talent for illuminating the deep effect of place on human lives. This is evident in every one of her efforts, whether a literary map of 737 American novels or the memoir In the Country of Women (2019), an account of the multiple generations of women—from Europe, Africa, and North America—whose stories make up the rich history of her family.
Straight is earnest and curious. Generous. Each of her books is written from the heart.
Her new novel, Mecca, is no exception. It’s an ambitious story of interconnected and diverse Southern California lives, and we’re drawn into it with ease. Mecca opens with CHP officer Johnny Frias, descendant of both Mexican settlers and Native Californians, on patrol in the remote and windswept canyons of the Inland Empire. Later, when an inevitable spark leaps into the grass, the Santa Anas sweep flames into a canyon like the one that carries Johnny’s deepest secret: “When I was twenty,” he says, “I’d killed a man in Bee Canyon, and his bones were buried there.”
Johnny hides this killing from everyone—his father, his colleagues, and the solid multiethnic friend group he’s had since he was young. The novel shines a light on the varied stories of their families. Narrative tension in Straight’s work is never just one thing. She knows the specificity of each character’s life and story: the wise father, the tired mother trying to make ends meet, the people who claim space for themselves when none is offered, the women who try to shape their identities so they can hide. Every life in Mecca is influenced in some way by the other lives around it. It’s how Straight develops the novel’s plot, allowing conflict to arise from inherited traumas, daily responsibilities, and the painful ways we love one another.
Bones don’t stay buried. Straight is showing us California. She is showing us ourselves.
Johnny Frias isn’t the only character with a secret. Ximena, who came from Oaxaca to the Coachella Valley, is an undocumented domestic worker at a surgical resort and spa. Like Johnny, she pays attention to California’s words—words from immigrants, from the Indigenous, from the enslaved, and from the enslavers.
Green Apple Book and Alta Journal present Susan Straight in conversation with Vanessa Hua on Monday, April 11 at 7 p.m. Pacific time.
Ximena keeps notebooks where she lists examples of American English. Johnny rides his motorcycle through the canyons while musing about the language that’s been used against him. “When I was little,” he remembers, “and we were at a store in Yorba Linda or Fullerton, and someone would say, ‘Go back to Mexico!’ or call us ‘fucking illegal aliens,’ my mother would say, ‘Mi gente estaba aquí antes que tu gente.’ My people were here before your people.” Here, Straight turns her attention toward the use of language as a method of exclusion, a way to claim false primacy, particularly during the “America First” presidency.
If it seems like I’m not revealing much of the plot, that’s intentional. The joy, here, is falling into the rich, specific details of the characters’ lives. I want you to begin in the canyon with Johnny, to meet his friends, his father, and Ximena. I want you to follow these people through the darkness of the pandemic and all the great, encompassing loss. I want you to learn the consequences of Johnny’s murderous act and to discover what threatens Ximena’s life. I want you to revel in Straight’s lush descriptions of overlooked spaces throughout California:
I drove south, past Mecca and Thermal and Oasis, the sandy earth covered with creosote bushes and smoke trees wherever there were no aisles of palm trees. Miles of green fields, with workers throwing watermelons and cantaloupe up onto trucks. A legion of women like Pharaohs wearing white headdresses walked out of the rows of grapevines that stretched forever like green veins toward the purple Mecca Hills.
What does it mean to be a Californian? Who gets to claim that title? All of us, Straight says. Mecca makes an argument for empathetic, formidable belief in people and place.•