By Wendy Smith
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 22, 2010; 7:09 PM
TAKE ONE CANDLE LIGHT A ROOM
By Susan Straight
Pantheon. 320 pp. $25.95
Americans don't generally deal well with the fraught subjects of race and class, often reduced in our public discourse to slogans and platitudes. But in six novels, including the 2001 National Book Award finalist "Highwire Moon," Susan Straight has made it her literary mission to add nuance and empathy to the discussion. Exploring the lives of African Americans and undocumented immigrants, she doesn't airbrush the crime and substance abuse endemic in impoverished communities, but she reminds us that these are communities, anchored in family ties and filled with hardworking, law-abiding people who understand all too well why some in their midst succumb to destructive despair. Straight's new book examines the nature of community itself, revealing its strength and limitations through the odyssey of a woman with her feet uneasily planted in two worlds.
Fantine Antoine comes from Sarrat, a tiny Southern California enclave built by her father as a refuge from racial violence. In 1958, Fantine's mother and four other 16-year-old girls were sent west from their home town because a white man had raped three of them and boasted he would get the other two. Things hadn't changed that much in rural Louisiana since Fantine's enslaved ancestor Marie-Therese was given by her owner as a sexual favor to a white man whose child she then bore (a tale related by Straight in "A Million Nightingales"). "It was my mother who told me the story," says Fantine, "so that I would stay home, safe, and never trust the outside world, or the white people in that world."
Instead, Fantine went to college and remade herself as FX Antoine, a successful travel writer who takes sardonic amusement in her professional contacts' attempts to guess the origins of her taupe skin and wavy hair. Pushing 40 when her narrative begins in late August 2005, FX is the classic, self-invented American. She lives in a trendy Los Angeles neighborhood, her apartment decorated with mementoes from far-flung assignments. Her best friend is a gay white photographer, himself from a blue-collar background, who understands why FX seldom makes the 62-mile drive to Sarrat. Like her, he has rejected the guiding principle of a fiercely protective, self-enclosed clan that believes the only important things in life are "the fire - the table - the tribe. There was nothing else outside the circle that mattered."
Straight poignantly evokes the mixed emotions of someone who has seized the opportunity to move outside that home circle. For her mother, Fantine admits, "my absence was almost as unforgivable as drug addiction or imprisonment." Within her family, good girls, such as her sister-in-law Clarette, become correctional officers; lost girls like her childhood friend Glorette become crackheads and get killed. No one in Sarrat reads the glossy magazines that publish FX; her accomplishments are unknown to them. But leaving behind her past means that her true self is unknown to those who know only FX. "I was floating. I was invisible," she thinks.
That isn't possible for her godson Victor, Glorette's son. He's a bright kid, eager for the intellectual pleasures and the wider world that lured FX away from her tribe; he's done well in community college, and FX is urging him to apply to four-year schools. But he doesn't have his godmother's racially indeterminate skin and hair. When members of the privileged world Victor wants to enter see him with his drug-dealing friends, they see only threatening black men. The restrictions imposed by race and class are intertwined but not the same; accents can be suppressed, clothes can be upscaled, but color is a marker for life.
When Victor's friends involve him in a murder, the three flee to Louisiana, and Fantine follows with her father. Their journey becomes a voyage into the past, all the way back to Plaquemines Parish at the mouth of the Mississippi, site of the plantation where Marie-Therese labored. As they frantically search for Victor, Hurricane Katrina guts Louisiana - capping a plot rife with shootings and revelations of past violence that occasionally seem designed to make a political point.
Straight's lapses into didactic melodrama are redeemed, however, by her textured portrait of the African American experience and her brilliantly specific language. The voices here ring absolutely true, from the stoic, French-inflected cadences of Fantine's father to the gangsta-wannabe lingo and Victor's recital of lyrics from "Baba O'Riley" that capture his conflicted soul. Meaning comes from the sound and weight of words as well as their content.
And words echo down the centuries, like the phrase reiterated throughout "A Million Nightingales" that gives this novel its title. "Take one candle light a room" was Marie-Therese's defiant affirmation that her daughter, conceived from rape, brightened her enslaved existence. Here it becomes a mandate for Fantine, who finally sees her way clear to honoring her family's history while shining a light toward a different future for herself and her godson. Layering the rich particulars of African American life into a classic tale of individual desires straining against collective constraints, Straight adds another complex, compassionate achievement to her distinguished body of work.
Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, frequently reviews books for The Post.