cover image Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights

Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights

Susan Straight. Hyperion Books, $21.45 (388pp) ISBN 978-0-7868-6003-6

Straight's first novel, I Been in Sorrow's Kitchen and Licked Out All the Pots , was roundly praised for the extraordinary poetry the author brought to the portrait of Marietta Cook, a proud black woman making her own way in rural South Carolina. Straight's new book picks up where Sorrow's Kitchen left off--in Rio Seco, a poor, hard-bitten suburb in East L.A. to which Marietta moved to be near her grown twin sons, both of whom play professional football. Marietta and her male friend, Roscoe, a poetically minded gardener, are part of an intensely realized, racially mixed American community in which the struggles of one young couple, Darnell and Brenda Tucker, figure most prominently. Darnell, but 20 years old, has a love of fires--he works part-time fighting the drought-induced conflagrations that race across the parched hillsides outside of L.A. He and Brenda are new parents of baby Charolette. Their attempt to carve a safe life amidst drive-by shootings, acquaintances ``slinging cain'' and constant harassment by the police is harrowing enough, but what emerges as the biggest obstacle to their self-determination is the silence of the fathers--not only Darnell's and Brenda's, but also the estimable Roscoe himself, whose son Louis, a former high school basketball standout, has run into problems with the law and, like the other ``children,'' finds no understanding from the man who raised him. In Straight's hands, this rough, dark, world pulses into life; her eye for the telling gesture, the apt figure, is so spectacularly keen that even a slight loss of narrative momentum at the book's midway point cannot be begrudged. Images of drought and wildfire wend through this novel like a musical theme, haunting the reader with both the threat and the promise of renewal. Major ad/promo; author tour. ( June )