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BOOK REVIEW / NOVEL

Hearty Language in a Heart-Rending Story : THE GETTIN PLACE by Susan Straight; Hyperion $22.95, 488 pages

September 06, 1996|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Murdering the king's English," my grandmother would say reproachfully, every time I played, consciously or unconsciously with the language. She also made me sit with a broom across my shoulders for posture, and forced me to write thank you letters one split second after I opened the present. Bless her, she provided structure, but the question remains, who was that king, and why was it his English?

Susan Straight's characters, who, in this latest novel, live in a dirt-poor neighborhood in Riverside she calls Treetown, speak an English that is not the king's, although the seeds of that language are there; they have grown all kinds of leaves, beautiful lush, many layered words that are heavy with the past, the present and the future. (The word "home," for example, will never have the same meaning for me; it is not a structure, provided by someone, it is now a place and the people in that place, the everyday people, and the history, which means the people it was home to before you, whose bones are buried there.)

Just that word, changed and augmented, would be enough to be grateful for, but in fact, as she has done in all her books ("Aquaboogie," "I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots," "Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights"), Susan Straight opens up a whole world, which good writers do. In her case, however, it happens to be a world that many of us don't really want to go to, a place where children get raped and see other children being murdered, where good people who try to raise themselves up get sucked back in by either loyalty to family members or because they are tired of fighting and fall back in, or because there is no hand on the other side to pull them out and up. It is a world where the language is often not lush but hard and rough as concrete.

Hosea, the patriarch in "The Gettin Place," grew up in Tulsa. He moved in 1950 to Rio Seco, built a house from river rock, had five sons and a daughter (Demetrious, Octavious, Julius, Marcus, Finis and Sofelia) with his wife, Alma, and started a towing company.

Marcus is the main character in the novel, the son who lives in a different, wealthier neighborhood, eats sushi and teaches history in a local school. Finis became mildly retarded smoking a "super cool," a cigarette soaked in PCP. Sofelia, her mama's pride and joy, was raped when she was 12. She ran away from home because she was afraid of her parents' anger and that her brothers would kill the guy. She had a baby, Mortrice, and tried to raise him in Los Angeles, but returns to Rio Seco because she is afraid for him.

The story opens when Hosea finds on his property a car with two burned bodies, one of them the daughter of a city councilman. He and his sons become the main suspects in the crime, and the story unfolds against the backdrop of the Los Angeles riots, 60 miles away but with ripple effects as vivid as a nuclear test.

It is hard reading, this novel, with its page-defying load of information, a structure that simply will not hold all the details Straight crams into it.

But there is a reason for all the details. The difference between reading ex-cops or lawyers who think they know "the street" is that their dialogue always ends up sounding tinny and flat. They just don't live there. Straight does.

In much the same way, Straight gives that Godforsaken area of Southern California back some of its natural beauty. She doesn't wax on about the desert or the river bottom by Hosea's house, but somehow shards of the desert work their way into the story. Finis collects the bones of American Indians from the river bottom. Marcus will look up and notice an ancient tree, or the "hard-edged stars."

This is fine writing, and fine now means something different as well, something sparkling and glamorous, but with a big-hearted integrity born of much suffering. The king's English just couldn't contain it.

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