From here the book becomes so complex, so bewildering, that even hewing to a single plot line for descriptive purposes is difficult. In the space of an afternoon and evening, Fantine, recently off a plane from Switzerland, attends a book party, takes numerous cell calls from Victor, is chastised by her friend Cerise for not returning to Sarrat to commemorate Clarette’s death, meets her publisher at a Oaxacan restaurant for coffee, where she is taken for fellow Latina, meets Victor, Jazen, and Alfonso briefly, falls asleep, wakes, visits her friend Tony, then, incredibly, decides she’d better head out to Sarrat that night after all. Sarrat is a two hour drive from Los Angeles. I share this litany as an exemplar of the book’s problems: who on earth could achieve so much between three o’clock in the afternoon and midnight without the help of illicit substances?
Victor, meanwhile, has managed to get himself tangled up in a gang shooting with Jazen and Alfonso. Alfonso, fearing prison, takes off—for Louisiana. This is the kernel of Straight’s novel: Fantine’s wild goose chase to recover the wounded Victor and give him the real care he’s always deserved. But the problems mount. Nobody, not even a woman accompanied by her eighty-two year old father, a rock of common sense, can find three young men fleeing eastward across the country. Countless cousins, relations, or just people known to the Antoine family litter the pages, their appearances contributing little more than confusion. More ugly secrets come to light, often involving rape, true paternity, and the adjective “golden-skinned,” used repeatedly to describe the multiracial characters cropping up on every page. Intermittent, encrypted cell phone calls from Victor only add to the sense of mayhem. Repeated references to the ancestral Moinette and her family make little sense unless the reader has also read A Million Nightingales, incidentally a far better book well worth reading.
FX and her father end up driving out to the original Sarrat together, where they suspect Alfonso is hoping to hide among family. There they encounter more relatives than I could keep track of, including a child sired by Mr. McQuine. There is a “rap video” scene that can only be described as bizarre, numerous near-sightings of Victor, and, overriding all this, threats of a massive hurricane: Katrina becomes the cherry topping a very messy sundae.
I am giving away nothing in saying Fantine does locate Victor, albeit in a way that makes little if any sense.
On a kinder note, Straight’s ability to move amongst dialogues—white, African-American, Creole—is unrivaled. She loses none of her incisive observation about racism’s insidious hold. As Fantine drives into Texas, her father Antoine urges her onward, paranoid from events long past, yet equally aware of potential danger in the present moment:
“Black still black. You in Texas now.”
Later in the day, when Fantine suggests driving through the night, her father refuses.
“Stop at dark.”
Fantine protests, adding: “It’s cooler at night. People always say it’s better on the car.”
“Not on the people.”
When Fantine continues to argue, citing her many adventures while travelling, her father interrupts.
“Who you with?”
“You with your friend Tony.” (Tony is a white, homosexual photographer Fantine often works with.)...”Now you with me. You just a nigger…We get stop at some gas station, some fool see us and want to play—you ain’t nobody…You not a writer…They work in the day. At night they got nothin to do. Drink beer and look for a souri.” (A mouse.)
I once read an interview with Michael Chabon. Prior to writing The Wonder Boys, he spent years writing a book that reached over 1,000 pages. He realized it was a mess and dropped it, going on to bigger and better novels. In the acknowledgments section of The Mother Knot, Kathryn Harrison thanks agent Amanda Urban for “saving her” from publishing a book. Janet Fitch, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, describes having a book “die” on her in the middle. In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard describes finding an impossible fault line in a book, a “bearing wall” on which “everything was to hang.” The wall, she writes, must go. The writer must start anew.
All of these writers, with the possible exception of Harrison, recognized a work in progress as fatally flawed, a lost cause. Even Harrison, when told, trusted her agent enough to move to another project. Which made me wonder how a writer as talented and sure-footed as Straight didn’t realize the mess she was in. All we can hope for—and cheerfuly expect—is her next book will be as powerful as her earlier works, its plot a true course we may chart without undue amounts of embroidery that only detract from her urgent point.