The Strata of Inlandia
Mecca: A Novel, by Susan Straight (New York, 2022), 384 pages
Review Essay by Victoria Waddle
Many years ago I attended a party at the Orange County home of a wealthy relative where I didn’t know most of the people. In typical small-talk fashion, a woman chatted me up. “Where do you live?” she asked.
When I answered “Ontario,” she said, “Oh. I’m sorry!” and walked away.
I was stunned by this stranger’s dismissal of my life as pitiable, and of me as a worthy conversationalist, based on this singular bit of information.
Recently, as I read Mecca by Susan Straight, I thought of that stranger’s dismissal of my life. In the novel a California Highway Patrol (CHP) sergeant barks at recruits: “Inland Empire assholes — don’t you guys have brain damage from birth?” (111)
I grew up in Los Angeles and Orange Counties but was always charmed by the land to the east. As a teen one of my favorite activities was backpacking. Venturing inland offered a reprieve from my affluent OC high school where the families of my peers had significantly more money than mine. Trips to the San Jacinto Mountains were a convenient weekend get away, offering me the opportunity to contemplate life’s meaning from vast, open spaces as I counted shooting stars.
Twenty years ago I moved from Ontario to Claremont, and found there what felt like my true home. But two months ago, I was displaced. I am closer to the coast in a city people told me I would love. So far, I do not.
I feel a homesickness for the San Gabriel Mountains and their foothills, one that manifests in chest pains, a sense of tightness around my heart. In reading Straight I discovered an author who understands this longing for inland places.
A novel of place is a work of geography and the people who inhabit it. In Mecca, Straight brilliantly engages both, interlacing the history of the inland Southern California region and its peoples. As a way of reminding the reader of location, subtitles for each chapter include the names of the freeways and byways that bring us there. While traveling, the reader is immersed in the region’s vastness and variety.
The true genius of Mecca is in the characters’ interplay with their environment. Awareness of locales serves to remind them of the past as well as the realities of their present. This reminder serves as both warning and love song — for the many peoples, the canyons and mountains, the scorching desert sunshine, and the ever-present possibility of Santa Ana winds. Such a novel could only have been written by a lifelong resident of the area.¹
Straight begins with the Santa Ana wind.
The wind started up at three a.m., the same way it had for hundreds of years, the same way I used to hear the blowing so hard around our little house in the canyon that the loose windowsills sounded like harmonicas. The old metal weather stripping played like the gods pressed their mouths around the screens in the living room, where I slept when I was growing up. (3)
These are the thoughts of Johnny Fritas, a Mexican American CHP motorcycle officer, as he watches dust and trash fly across freeway lanes. Though most of his days at work are full of routine traffic stops and sorting out fender benders, he has ample time to think about trivial and life changing events. The fall ritual of men who were “pissed that the Dodgers had lost even though they were supposed to be the Boys of October.” (4) Of his mother who died when he was nine, a woman whose kitchen was her “small dance of efficient,” a packinghouse worker who caught pneumonia one too many times in bad working conditions. (29) He considers languages he knows: Spanish, English, and ‘American,’ that endless accumulation of inscrutable idioms. He passes “countless canyons every day. Black Star, Santiago, Silverado, Coal, Gypsum. Hundreds of miles of strip malls, housing tracts, Disneyland, and Knott’s Berry Farm.” (7) While he notes the endless homeless camps between the freeway and the Santa Ana River, Johnny remembers the history of these places, once the homes of the Tongva, Cahuilla, and Serrano peoples. He recalls learning about the formation of the rocks.
Johnny also often wonders what it’s cost him to be a CHP. Because of his moreno coloring, Fritas, born in Orange County and raised in Fuego Canyon, is sometimes challenged as a ‘wetback’ and called Officer Fritos, the Frito Bandito, and worse. Prejudice and racism are unavoidable realities of his job and life, made worse with the ascendancy of Trump and, eventually, by the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and its attached anxiety.
On a night far from the typical, an off-duty Fritas attempts to help a woman who is being raped by a white man in isolated Bee Canyon, adjacent to Fuego Canyon. The man pulls a knife on Fritas. Fritas shoots the man. The woman drives off during the altercation. All this is seen by the Phantom, a man sought by law enforcement because he throws rocks through the windows of moving vehicles. The Phantom throws a pick to Fritas, who believes that without the victim as a witness, he will be accused of murder.
Fritas buries the rapist but spends the next twenty years wondering about that night. Will the body surface in a hard rain or a fire stoked by a Santa Ana wind? What happened to the woman? What is his responsibility to her? Could he have acted differently? Was it murder or self-defense? Defense of the crime victim?
From Fritas we move east on the 10 Freeway to Coachella and the story of Ximena, a Mixtec girl who’s recently crossed the U.S.–Mexico border. In the crossing she lost her brother, who drowned. She’s silently, and quite alone, dealing with the trauma of repeated rape by a human coyote and her ensuing pregnancy and miscarriage.
Ximena works at Seven Palms, a medi-spa, cleaning the rooms and catering to the wealthy (sometimes famous) guests, all of whom are there to recover from a variety of plastic surgeries.
The valley was stunning. It had to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. A gorgeous series of layers and colors — the base of golden sand and white dunes, the silver and green ghost trees and smoke trees floating like strange baby’s breath, the spears of white Yucca, and the green creosote bushes. (332)
But the incredible beauty of the area is encased in its heat. Workers toil in blistering conditions. Guests appreciate the location only for its remoteness from their ordinary lives and remain always locked inside, unseeing.
Ximena is among the anonymous unseen. To her supervisor she is a potential thief whose every move must be watched. She speaks neither English nor Spanish but is constantly reminded of the word ‘ice.’ All the guests need crushed ice for their swollen and wounded bodies. If she does anything at all that her supervisor doesn’t like, ICE will be called to haul her away. Still, she dreams of school and a future, copying new words in a notebook and absorbing knowledge from her cousin Fidelia, who is a high school student and a citizen.
Ximena’s life is again upended when she finds a white baby deserted in one of the motel’s rooms. The guest had not allowed housekeeping for two days. Entering what she believes is an empty room, Ximena smells shit and hears the weak cries of the infant that, outside the room, had sounded like a cricket. Fearing blame, ICE, and deportation or prison if the dehydrated baby should die, Ximena hides the infant girl in hotel linen. She takes her home to her aunt and uncle. While they hatch a plan to leave the baby where it can be found and identified, Ximena is accused of stealing and must flee. She briefly heads for the (Hollywood) hills, but Mecca is her base.
A third story, that of the woman who deserted her baby, will connect these two, though at first they seem unrelated. Many other plot lines involving the friends and wives of friends of Johnny Fritas are woven into the fabric of these lives. There is Matelasse, whose family has a long history in Louisiana before they move to the Inland Empire. She is challenged by ICE at the LA flower mart and the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation. Though she can recite her long American heritage and the geography of her life, an officer responds to it with “So you’re Black,” flattening her history. (337)
“The earth had its own skin, and the strata underneath. The human body had skin, and the strata underneath. Sheath of woven muscle, purple glisten of tubes, yellow fat. Subcutaneous.” (75) Straight wants the reader, unlike the ICE officer, to keep this connection in mind.
There is Merry, who works in the Neonatal Unit at USC Hospital. Her son, Tenerife, is an up-and-coming basketball player who decides to go to Jack in the Box with some fellow ballers after a long, late-running tournament. The ensuing injustice, beginning with the offhand way a teen is judged by his location — he’s adored on the basketball court but not at Jack in the Box at 11 p.m. — is one of the most heartbreaking among many in the novel.
A poignant undercurrent in Mecca is the constant dependence of the privileged on the toil of the less fortunate and even the desperate, played out without appreciation or gratitude. This is the geography of community, its strata, and it depends on the geography of the land. The interplay among these people reminds the reader of the wind and its inconstancy:
The Santa Anas had a way of shifting from constant blowing to sudden gusts, like the cartoon pictures of a big god with his mouth puffed up. A long minute where you felt sustained force, the sound like cloth whipping past your ears. I always thought it was a goddess snapping a dish towel close to our necks so we’d jump. (55)
Though all the characters in Mecca suffer, their connectedness offers hope to them and to the reader. Geography both threatens and nourishes them. Straight makes the outsider understand the layers. And the love for them.
Straight is quite well known and equally accomplished. She’s a National Book Award finalist and a winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes Robert Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement. Mecca is an important book for all readers because it poses uncomfortable questions about culture, race, prejudice, and privilege. It reminds us that everyone comes from somewhere, and we’re all in this together, deeply connected. If you live in inland Southern California, it’s an essential read.
- Like much of Straight’s work, Mecca acts as a counterpoint to the narrative of Joan Didion, who wrote gorgeously, but with a dishonesty born of privilege, about the Inland Empire. (Straight discusses how Didion misses the mark in this LA Times opinion piece.)
Victoria Waddle is a fiction and nonfiction editor for Inlandia: A Literary Journey. See this issue’s Masthead for more about her.