Mecca by Susan Straight book review

“Mecca” is, among other things, a clever deconstruction of racial categories and the racist assumptions that are based on them. Straight tackles not only how prejudice motivates violence, but also how it distorts the response to violence. In this country, crimes are framed by certain assumptions about guilt and innocence based on skin color, and this corrosive system determines who can report a crime, how it is investigated, and what will be the penalty, if any.

Additionally, Straight introduces us to men and women whose families have been on this earth for centuries, far longer than white people who view them with suspicion as “illegal aliens.” They’re descended from Mexicans, Native Americans, Spaniards, enslaved Africans and more — a rich mix of cultures flattened by a rogue Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer who growls, “So you’re black.”

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

At the center of the “Mecca” is Johnny Frías, a California patroller who rides at least 200 miles a day on his motorcycle. Straight lays out the eerie beats of his work: mostly speeding tickets, fender benders and drunk driving citations – routine work triggered haphazardly by perilous chases and gruesome accidents. “No one in the world was happy to see me,” Johnny says, “unless they had an accident and were afraid to die.”

Highway patrols, which always carried risks, have become more unpredictable lately. “Every time I got off the bike and walked over to the passenger side,” he says, “I was waiting for someone to shoot me.” He hears the slide of racist rhetoric that Donald Trump has made acceptable, even patriotic. When Johnny pulls someone over these days, he’s likely to be told, “Maybe I need to see your ID, make sure you’re not a bad man yourself. -same.”

Such bashing doesn’t bother Johnny, who describes himself as “moreno”, but it does interest him. Like Straight, he is an attentive student of language, that elastic system of sounds that carries the hopes and fears of culture. Having grown up speaking Spanish at home, then English at school, he is still fascinated by “a third language: American” – that mercurial dialect of metaphors, idioms and profanity, for example. toke, cooked, holy cow. He lists them all in notebooks like a linguist on a motorbike. “I was obsessed with how people spoke to me,” he says, “and what I should respond to.”

But that’s just the smallest element of this incredibly complex hero. Two decades ago, Johnny was the only one of his friends to graduate from the police academy. Now 39, he’s beginning to wonder if the sacrifices he made – giving up a wife, a family – were worth it. In dark times, he fears his decision is largely based on fear. “Stay home,” he thinks, “and you’ll have fewer people to lose.

But Johnny’s reluctance to get close to anyone is motivated by something more sinister, something so disturbing that he mentions it to us a few pages into the story: when he was just beginning to come into force, he halted a brutal assault in the mountains. . During the altercation, he killed a white man. Circumstances made him too scared to report what happened, so he buried the man’s body and told no one. He’s been riding that canyon ever since, remembering what he did, what he failed to do. Every time it rains, he expects the corpse to be washed from his unmarked grave and destroy his carefully ordered life. This impulsive, understandable but criminal act kept him suspended in anxiety and alienated from others throughout his career.

As soon as she spins this captivating story, she moves on to another that feels totally unrelated. Suddenly, we follow the life of Ximena, a young Mexican girl smuggled into the United States by a brutal coyote. Ximena works at a spa for wealthy women undergoing plastic surgery. The work is hard; humiliating surveillance. With ICE officers constantly circling, Mexican staff know they shouldn’t file a complaint or commit a violation. So when Ximena finds an abandoned newborn in one of the hotel’s luxurious rooms, she panics.

Between the poles of these two ambiguous crimes – committed 20 years apart – Straight weaves together the details of a terrifically engaging novel about a web of people bound by blood, love and duty. A subplot detailing how children struggle with loneliness during the covid pandemic is heartbreaking. Another involving a mother’s response to a police shooting is a tour de force that could morph and linger as a classic short story.

But what might be most impressive about this novel is how voluminous it gets without ever feeling bloated with extraneous plots or too carefully stitched together. Instead, what initially appears to be a disparate collection of experiences gradually develops intertwining tendrils to create a celebration of families – a celebration made all the more poignant by the constant threat of being separated, exiled, hurt or even kill. Remarkably, the most lingering impression here is not one of suffering but one 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 pages. $28

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