For many, California exists as a dream. Beyond the myths and the illusions, for author Susan Straight, a native Californian who has never left, there are certain stories that must be told. In her ninth novel, “Mecca,” Straight draws together a diverse family — some by blood but many chosen — for a big-hearted and often wrenching saga.
The novel is told through a braided narrative, each strand centered around a different individual or clutch of characters. As the book unfolds, various people return or connect through other relationships. Their backgrounds range from Mexican, African American by way of Louisiana, Mexican American, indigenous American, white, and even one who imagines himself to be Brazilian. Their fates and fortunes are equally varied. The book’s action spans various twists, heart-stopping tragedies, and emotional catharsis, but it all begins with bones buried beneath stones in Bee Canyon.
Johnny Frias is a California Highway Patrol cop with stories, too. Weaving around on his motorcycle as though it was a horse, “herding everyone. Moving a group of animals slanting behind them at their flanks. California freeways were all about the right rear tires and the rearview mirrors and me watching about forty things at the same time. No different than the ranch.” Johnny heard every kind of excuse from drivers. Some chastened, others repugnant. From Melt, his training officer, Johnny learned to pause during encounters with drivers, letting people reveal their true selves. With the assumption from his name and appearance that he was fresh from Mexico, the latter would tell him outright to go back where he came from. Despite the fact that his parents were multi-generational Californians, he endured countless slurs, but remained calm under pressure. Johnny wasn’t bilingual, he was trilingual: Spanish, English, and American. He reflected: “I spoke American better than they did because I listened. They never listened.”
The act of listening and the powerful precision of language surface again and again in “Mecca” as the narrative shifts from Johnny Frias to Ximena, an 18-year-old undocumented immigrant whose journey from Mexico to California cost her the life of her brother and left her pregnant after being assaulted by a coyote, as human smugglers are known. Like Johnny, Ximena keeps journals of words and phrases, not assimilating, but accumulating language and expression. Words carry weight. Throughout Mecca, Straight laces her stories with language in Mixtec and Spanish without translation for the monolingual English-speaking readers. While this may frustrate some, the sensation of mystery and the need to read around the dialogue for clues and tone placed me in the mind of those who are forced to submit to English at all times.
Sensing danger outside language, early during his tenure as a CHP cop, Johnny happened upon an assault in Bee Canyon. Without badge or uniform, he intervened to save a woman’s life, but, in doing so, killed a man. With bones left behind in the canyon, the guilt and responsibility weighed on Johnny for the 20 years that followed. Still he knew there were as many truths as there were stories. “Holding [him] tight in the old redwood chair [his] father had tied to the porch railing up in Fuego Canyon, while the Santa Anas blew in the black night when they always started,” his mother told him, “Nothing else is sure but for the wind.” What happened on that day sat differently with the woman Johnny felt he defended, but what it means to preserve life rests at the heart of Straight’s novel.
Straight never shies away from large themes and historical significance across varied time periods. “Mecca” is set in our contemporary moment and crosses over into the pandemic. Here, as in all her books, she elevates the lives of extraordinary everyday people whose lives speak to a universal fragility and pride. Faced with her son Dante’s unstructured curriculum during lockdown, ICU nurse Larette reflects that it “was up to him to learn what he loves.” When he chose to study the stars, she approved, saying, “it helped to think that the stars would never disappear, no matter what idiots did on earth.” These characters are two of many whose stories deserve equal weight in this review; see to it that you come to know them yourself. Through her ever-growing cast of characters, Straight persists in revealing the interconnectedness of her subjects. She normalizes the grandeur of lives that might otherwise be lost to history, honoring them with a novel that’s spacious in scale, comfortable taking time to describe the scent and texture of the air, the details of a cookout, the minor things that trigger love and hate.
Its individual sections, such as “Angel Wings” (first published in ESPN magazine and centered around the police shooting of an innocent and talented teenager, killed while picking up fast food after a late basketball practice), demonstrate Straight’s ability to easily capture alienation and loss in a fragmented world. Left alone, these stories possess enough integrity to stand on their own. As a whole, they step beyond their parts to produce a vibrant American family saga. At many moments, the book’s cumulative impact made it necessary to set the book aside to collect myself before continuing. Without question, I’d pick it up again. Taking Johnny’s dictum to listen and wait to heart, one can and should pause to let the novel’s tremendous scope settle.
By Susan Straight
Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, 384 pages, $28
Lauren LeBlanc is a writer and editor who lives in Chapel Hill. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.