NOVEMBER 22, 2012
SUSAN STRAIGHT’S NEWEST NOVEL, Between Heaven and Here, contains sex and murder and vengeance, but it is her examination of familial love, the obligation and calling to care for your own, not only in life but through the passage beyond, that pulled me through the pages. Early in the novel, the Picard family, a Creole clan transplanted from the bayous of Louisiana to Rio Seco, California, finds their stunning daughter, Glorette, murdered in an alley; each relative must come to terms with her death. Cursed first by beauty and later by a crack addiction, Glorette’s occupation as a streetwalker, a prostitute, was difficult enough for her relatives to accept. After her death, they face new challenges.
While most murder novels orbit around the age-old theme who dunnit, Straight’s book invokes a more ancient and messy dilemma, what to do with the dead, something American mortuaries keep hidden from our easily spooked eyes. A body needs to be cared for, cleaned and prepared for burial — arms, legs and torso washed, bowels moved, nails painted, eyes closed, lipstick applied — and then kept company so it won’t get lonely in the long night before it is buried or burned, joining for eternity the other deceased.
For the Picard family, care doesn’t stop there. In the small town of Rio Seco, California, “Every brother on the Westside had fallen in love with Glorette, and […] though she’d been on the street for 10 years, […] no one had ever fallen out.” When her longtime admirer Sidney Chabert finds her crumpled in a shopping cart in the alley where she worked, he kidnaps her corpse. “Nobody would care about Glorette,” he reasons. “No cops or technicians. They’d laugh about her clothes, find multiple kinds of semen inside her, make fun of her apartment, pull Ramen from the cupboard, scare the shit out of her son. Well, hell, someone killed a crack addict.” And so Sidney takes her body to Glorette’s cousins. “What the cops gon do but laugh?” he asks them. “What the morgue gon do but cut her up?” Glorette has power over men even after her death; cousins Lafayette and Reynoldo assist Sidney in the crime of body theft. Glorette is taken to Sarrat, away from authorities, to her family’s land — a near mythical orange grove that contains various family houses, the family cemetery, and relatives who’ve seen dead bodies before and know how to care for them. “The only church would be their words,” Glorette’s father, Gustave, reasons when he learns of his daughter’s death. “[We’ll] build a coffin […] and dig the hole in the old cemetery where no one but Sarrat people [come].”
Death, like the rock that “turn[ed] to gray smoke inside [Glorette’s] mouth […] throat, [and] lungs,” isn’t merely physical. Sorrow seeps into the psyches of those coming to terms with the murder; old conversations replay themselves and missed opportunities trigger intense regrets, reigniting lost love. Straight, winner of an Edgar Award, an O’Henry Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Prize, refracts love’s labor like a prism; told from a revolving collection of perspectives not unlike those in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Between Heaven and Here resurrects Glorette, making us feel her spirit, even in her absence.
Memories of Glorette manifest alongside family histories so damning and beautiful, they read not as echoes, but as concurrent narratives, dredged violence doomed to repetition through generations. Glorette’s mother was a woman “with skin the color of an old wedding dress hanging in her mother’s house” and “black hair braided high on her head in a crown.” To hide her exceptional beauty from Mr. McQuine, the white rapist who owned the land her brown-skinned family worked, her father built an armoire. Whenever “Mr. McQuine’s car raised dust on the road,” her mother would hide her in it. In fairy tales, beauty leads to romance, but real life beauty like that of Glorette and her mother lead to murder. “Why have buttocks?” Glorette wondered. “What good were they? And hair?” Beauty is a curse that even death can’t undo, passed, as it is, genetically.
While the women in the novel cope with Glorette’s death by caring for her body, Glorette’s male relatives, her Uncle Enrique in particular, respond to her death with vengeance. To him, the economy of murder is simple — whoever “got” Glorette must be gotted — but revenge proves complicated. The murderer must be found out, and another killing will at least give the illusion, if only temporary, of an equal exchange. But murders aren’t free. They carry guilt and the possibility of new vengeance, the probability that violence will continue through time, in an ongoing theater of hurt funneling into anger, anger transformed into fresh hurt.
Accepting death can feel like betrayal, and mourning leads only to new mourning. As each family member responds to Glorette’s murder, it’s not only her death that they must process, but also her life. How is that their beloved daughter became an addict and a prostitute? How is it that they could do nothing to save her? Protect her from her own desires? From herself? These questions haunt, and Straight is smart not to provide answers. Understanding Glorette’s life is as difficult as processing her death. What can one do but comb memory for clues?
When Glorette’s son Victor enters the novel as chief mourner, he offers hope. A reading fool, third in his high school class, proficient at SAT vocabulary words and under no illusions about the nature and danger of his mother’s profession, Victor moves in with his grandfather, who is “so sad his voice [becomes a] whisper of sandpaper on already smooth wood.” Death, this reunion suggests, is best dealt with by focusing on the living, the progeny and those others left behind.
In an open letter published in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Straight wrote to her progeny once removed, her nephew Sensei, a young man not much older than the fictional Victor:
when I see ‘aspire to excellence’ as an academic or marketing phrase beloved by large institutions and by politicians, when I see ‘American exceptionalism’ shouted as a mantra of defense, I realize that I wish only for you to live. Just to stay alive. That is not an exaggeration. That is how the women who love you — and who love men like you all over the nation — feel.
Just to stay alive. To live. These words resonate, and not merely because there is desperation in such a plea, but because there is so much love. Straight doesn’t wish for her nephew to thrive, or to achieve or even aspire to excellence. She prays Sensei will survive to walk up her “cracked cement path, holding [his] son’s hand” through the years, “until there is silver hair in [his] dreads tied back with a shoelace.” Her fear is based on more than just a bad premonition. Like Victor, he’s a young black man living in a country notorious for the casualties within his precise demographic.
Love and fear cannot exist without one another. To love is to have spiritual arthritis—to imagine, in painful detail, worst possible scenarios. And it’s love that enables us to cope when these nightmares come true. Ten years ago, my aunt passed away in Tokyo, where she had spent most of her adult life. She’d suffered from brain cancer, and though she survived the surgery, the subsequent chemo and radiation robbed her — over 17 years — of memories, grace, and ultimately language. Near the end of her life, she couldn’t speak — she communicated through song, crooning good morning and hello and I’m hungry in a child’s warble. Those who were at the funeral wrote notes and drew pictures and tucked these, alongside bright flowers, in her coffin.
Afterwards, my relatives took turns sharing stories. My aunt had taught my mother to shop for fish, tofu, and roasted sweet potatoes on the narrow streets of Setagaya-Ku. She translated children’s verse from Japanese to English. When she read fairy tales, she used voices so that her children — as well as her nieces and nephews on the other side of the planet who listened on cassette — could tell the troll from the Billy Goats Gruff. In a private room at the crematorium, close family gathered around a table to pick fragments of my aunt’s bones from the ashes, a Buddhist ritual practiced throughout Japan and China. With chopsticks, they transferred these remnants to an urn, which would later be buried at the family plot. The ceremonies were both difficult and satisfying, as my family, in their sorrow and love, conjured my aunt’s spirit through shared memory. For a moment, as my mother held between her fingers a small piece of her sister’s body, death was robbed of its abstraction
According to Straight, love means confronting not only death’s messy depths but our own anger and sorrow. The possibility that love is a salve for our suffering makes her writing raw. Though the book is fiction, its emotions are real and complex, as tangible as a bone in your hand, as vivid as memory. Suspenseful and lyrical, Between Heaven and Here is also a meditation, a book invoking more questions than answers. What happens when survival fails? How do we care for our dead?