Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s, 232 pages), the capstone of novelist Susan Straight’s Rio Seco trilogy, is set in Sarrat, a Southern California community as economically bone-dry as the creek separating it from Rio Seco. It is in Sarrat where a band of Louisianan refugees, their banter laced with Creole and their memories peppered with sugarcane, sharecropping, and floods, has taken root. And it is in Sarrat, with its fruit pickers and prostitutes, where one of that Creole community’s most beautiful members, Glorette Picard, is murdered.
Straight has created a portrait of a city immediately familiar to anyone versed in the landscape of California’s Inland Empire, that stretching expanse of strip malls and orange groves. Straight’s Rio Seco is a successor to Steinbeck’s migrant camps, striated with a similarly buoyant dialogue and underlined, always, by an ache. Everyone seems to be foraging for something. Glorette seeks out sex for crack and twenty dollars for her son Victor’s instant ramen. Victor, brilliant and college-bound, searches compulsively for another SAT word to memorize so as to keep out of trouble.
Beginning her novel with Glorette’s murder, Straight weaves a narrative mostly of memories. There are many. Sarrat and Rio Seco are not islands; their members, all seemingly extended relatives, are as tied to the rest of the world as they are to each other. We read of plantation life in Louisiana and the lingering presence of old rapes and murders among families. World War II crops up, as do postcards from far-off places, written in the hand of a relation who has “made it.”
The heart of Straight’s story, though, sits firmly in the days surrounding the discovery of Glorette’s body in an alley behind a taqueria. For all her silence through most of Between Heaven and Here, Glorette is a central character, illuminated by the memories of others. “Glorette had fallen in love, the love was like pure rum lit-up – purple flames when you threw it into a campfire down by the river,” remembers one character. It’s this luminosity makes the story larger than that of a murder mystery; it’s a novel about a place (rat-infested and glorious) and its people (desperate and fiercely loving).
Beauty here seems improbable, but it exists. It’s wonderfully found in Glorette, who from an early age, with her huge bun of hair, fascinates everyone. Like most everything else in Rio Seco, she is a product of the past’s strange and intricate merging, as is, we learn, her murder. The surprising beauty that plays a part in Glorette’s downfall permeates the entirety of Straight’s landscape. “Sarrat was all orange groves,” she writes, “and palm trees near the riverbottom with wild grapevines covering the trunk…Lafayette lit the base of the palm tree on fire, and when the flames reached the tangled vines, the rats leapt out as if diving into an invisible ocean. They sprang into the air. Then they dangled for a second. Like Kobe. Hang time.”
As she can bring splendor to the leaping of rats, Straight can to the same to the smoking of crack. “A clover burr in your hand,” she writes. “And then it turned red and glowed, like a rat’s eye in the palm tree when you looked up just as headlights caught the pupils. Did rats have pupils? Then you breathed in. And behind your eyes, it was like someone took a white-out pen and erased everything. Your whole head turned into a milkshake. Sweet and grainy and sliding down the back of your skull.”
Imbuing her characters and setting with a rare brand of unexpected and somehow vibrant gorgeousness, Straight tells a story thrumming with love. This, it seems, is her specialty: examining the suffering in everyday places and people and threading their stories with beauty.