Review | In ‘Mecca,’ Susan Straight unearths the real Southern California

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“Mecca” is, among many things, a shrewd deconstruction of racial categories and the racist assumptions built upon them. Straight tackles not only the way prejudice motivates violence but the way it distorts the response to violence. In this country, crimes are framed by certain assumptions about culpability and innocence based on skin color, and that corrosive system determines who can report a crime, how it’s investigated and what the punishment — if any — will be.

What’s more, Straight introduces us to men and women whose families have been on this land for centuries, far longer than the White folks who regard them suspiciously as “illegal aliens.” They’re descended from Mexicans, Native Americans, Spaniards, enslaved Africans and more — a rich melange of cultures flattened by a thuggish Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who grunts, “So you’re Black.”

The novel’s structure cleverly reflects this diversity: The chapters move from character to character, some with first-person narrators, some with third. One particularly devastating chapter written in the second person, you will never forget.

At the center of “Mecca” is Johnny Frías, a California patrol officer who covers at least 200 miles a day on his motorcycle. Straight lays out the strange rhythms of his job: mostly speeding tickets, fender benders and drunken-driving citations — routine work randomly sparked with perilous chases and gruesome crashes. “Nobody in the world was happy to see me,” Johnny says, “unless they’d been in an accident and were scared of dying.”

Patrolling the highways, which always carried risks, has grown more unpredictable lately. “Every time I got off the bike and walked to the passenger side,” he says, “I was waiting for someone to shoot me.” He hears the shift in the racist rhetoric that Donald Trump has made acceptable, even patriotic. When Johnny stops someone these days, he’s likely to be told, “Maybe I need to see your ID, make sure you’re not a bad hombre yourself.”

Such disparagement doesn’t ruffle Johnny, who describes himself as “moreno,” but it interests him. Like Straight, he’s an attentive student of language, that elastic system of sounds that carries the culture’s hopes and fears. Having grown up speaking Spanish at home and then English at school, he’s forever fascinated by “a third language: American” — that mercurial dialect of metaphors, idioms and profanities, e.g. toke, baked, holy cow. He catalogues them all in notebooks like a motorcycle-riding linguist. “I was obsessed with how people talked to me,” he says, “and what I should say back.”

But that’s just the slightest element of this fantastically complex hero. Two decades ago, Johnny was the only one of his friends to graduate from the police academy. Now 39, he’s starting to wonder whether the sacrifices he made — forgoing a wife, a family — were worth it. In bleak moments, he worries his decision was based largely on fear. “Keep to yourself,” he thinks, “and you’ll have fewer people to lose.”

But Johnny’s reluctance to get close to anyone is driven by something more sinister, something so troubling that he mentions it to us a few pages into the story: When he was just starting off on the force, he interrupted a brutal assault up in the mountains. During the altercation, he killed a White man. The circumstances made him too afraid to report what happened, so he buried the man’s body and told no one. Ever since, he’s been riding past that canyon remembering what he did, what he failed to do. Every time it rains, he expects the corpse to wash out of its unmarked grave and destroy his carefully regulated life. That one impulsive act, understandable but criminal, has held him suspended in anxiety and distanced him from others throughout his career.

Straight no sooner spins this captivating story than she shifts to another one that seems entirely unrelated. Suddenly, we’re following the life of Ximena, a young Mexican woman smuggled into the United States by a brutal coyote. Ximena works at a spa for wealthy women getting plastic surgery. The labor is hard; the supervision humiliating. With ICE agents constantly circling, the Mexican staff members know they mustn’t voice any complaints or commit even the slightest infraction. So when Ximena finds a newborn baby abandoned in one of the luxurious hotel rooms, she panics.

Between the poles of these two ambiguous crimes — committed 20 years apart — Straight strings the details of a terrifically engaging novel about a network of people related by blood, love and duty. A subplot detailing the way children struggle with loneliness during the covid pandemic is heartbreaking. Another one involving a mother’s response to a police shooting is a tour de force that could spin off and persist on its own as a classic short story.

But what might be most impressive about this novel is how large it becomes without ever feeling bloated by extraneous plotlines or too neatly sewn up. Instead, what initially appears to be a disparate collection of experiences gradually develops interweaving tendrils to create a celebration of families — a celebration made all the more poignant by the constant threat of being separated, exiled, wounded or even killed. Remarkably, the most persistent impression here is not one of suffering but of determined survival, even triumph.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts the Book Report for CBS “Sunday Morning.”

Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 384 pp. $28

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