It starts with pigs.
Mike Davis says, “Make sure she tells you the story about the pigs.”
By “she” he means Susan Straight, to which Straight replies, “which story?”
In other words, there’s not merely one pig story but several. One of those stories is apparently about a guard pig. “I saw it,” says Straight. “We went to this man’s house [neighbor] and instead of a dog guarding his yard, he had a pig! And he was ready to go.” Straight straddles the line between naked regional pride and shameful disbelief in her account. Finally, she decides that protection of property doesn’t have to involve cruel and unusual punishment. “I didn’t think it was such a very good idea. Pigs are mean.”
It’s hard to imagine two titans of composition yukking it up over swine of all things. But they are—just as natural as you please. And why not? Life is good. The engine is purring sweet prosaic melodies, words attached to dreams, images riding on clouds, the plaintive wail of separation, the bitchslap of globalization. It’s all there for the taking, served up nice and resource-friendly with plenty of fixin’s.
Susan Straight and Mike Davis are best-selling authors, respected scholars and academics, award winners, Liebchens of literature, names we rely upon to conjure crisp vivid pictures of fascination and dread, and perhaps most glaring of all, just plain folks. Inland Empire natives, no less, who’re as emblematic and essential to the landscape as wild sagebrush and ocotillo. Not that they merely share geography in common—they’ve both just received 2007 Lannan Fellowship awards, as well.
The Lannan group is a benevolent organization along the lines of MacArthur and Guggenheim that awards artists whom they consider to be leading lights in everything that’s “profound” and “unquantifiable” in the written word. It’s handed out over $11 million in awards since 1989. Of 2007’s ten recipients— winners ranging from Scotland to Ethiopia, Peru to upstate New York—the Empire was most heavily represented. Straight from Riverside (fiction), and Davis from Fontana (nonfiction). Who’d have thunk it?
“I think it’s a pretty big deal,” says Straight of the Lannan prizes, which not only come with a mark of prestige but $150,000 of prize money. “Not bad for a couple of white trash intellectuals, huh?”
I love every mile of my homeland. The fields of watermelon and cantaloupe in Blythe and Ripley . . . the savanna-like golden grasses in the Temecula Valley . . . the steep entrance of the Cajon Pass.
Susan Straight was born in Riverside and still lives there, raising her three daughters. Mike Davis was born in Fontana, moved away at an early age, and says he is “dying to get back” to raise his family. Both have written extensively about their hometowns; Straight using Rio Seco as the surrogate for Riverside, and Davis referring to Fontana simply as the “Junkyard of Dreams.”
Both contributed essays to a recent Inland Empire literary collection entitled Inlandia and, in fact, their pieces bookend the anthology—Straight’s love letter to the region begins the book, while Davis’ engaging treatise closes it.
The purpose behind Inlandia would seem apparent—to disprove the slights and misconceptions that has previously dogged the IE with folk tales, poetry and prose masterpieces culled from a pool of known and unknown writers. After all, some of those misconceptions prompted the works in Inlandia to begin with. For instance, in his rebuttal poem “At Barstow,” the late Dick Barnes, at once a professor of medieval literature and creative writing at Pomona College and San Bernardino native, responded to the British poet Charles Tomlinson’s less than ecstatic overnight stay in the desert city with a haughty shrug of his shoulders:
In the morning
up rose the sun,
and up rose Tomlinson, and on he went
Tomorrow the world
The same is true of Susan Straight, who grew up as the neighborhood sleuthhound, constantly exploring the Box Springs Mountains and the orange and walnut groves that’re still sprinkled about in Riverside. For her it’s always been about trying to overcome the shock she received after reading Joan Didion’s essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” in college. Didion’s essay, from the landmark collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, disparaged life below the San Bernardino Mountains as “suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.”
As Straight has recounted numerous times, reading this about her childhood home stunned her. “I didn’t know what to feel then,” she writes in the introduction to Inlandia. “I was one of those people Joan Didion knew everything about.”
From that moment on, Straight’s life course was settled.
Straight immersed herself completely in literature, a process that took her from Riverside City College to USC and finally to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to earn an MFA in Creative Writing. Upon returning home she was a revered novelist and Guggenheim Fellow, and became the co-founder of the MFA Creative Writing program at UC Riverside. In her six novels, from Highwire Moon (a National Book Award finalist) to 2007’s A Million Nightingales, Straight weaves intricate tales of “Rio Seco” families whose destinies split time somewhere between smog and meth-amphetamines. She doesn’t pull any punches in her work but, unlike Didion, the novels are informed by the empathy and trust only a native can possess.
And if Straight writes about confronting a feral pig, you know that the information you’re getting is reliable.
“One October my cousin and I were walking along the bottom of the Santa Ana River,” says Straight, “and we heard a crackling noise. We didn’t know what it was. Then my cousin pulls out a gun. I didn’t even know he had a gun. I ask him ‘what do you think you’re going to do with that?’ My cousin was six-foot-four and about 280 pounds.” The pig, by Straight’s estimation, was 400 pounds of belligerent snorting fury. The confrontation was brief. “We ran,” laughs Straight. “You really don’t want to mess with a wild pig.”
Good heavens, no.
Cruising Base Line, in fact, is rather like a Jim Jarmusch movie. The dull moments are always promptly relieved by some new enigma or unexpected absurdity.
Lannan Literature Awards go not just to proven writers but, according to the Lannan website, those that “demonstrate potential for continued outstanding work.” If that’s the case, Mike Davis, who teaches urban history at UC Irvine and is a former MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, may soon be running afoul of the Foundation committee. That’s because the seemingly indefatigable Davis is hinting at retirement. Yes, the unrelenting doom-and-gloom agent of the urban culture set whose words can incite swirling mosh pits of controversy and send academics, journalists and public policy mavens into fits of footnoted frenzy, whose dizzying output has seen over 10 books published—Ecology of Fear and Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb among them—in the last seven years is riding off into the sunset.
Or at least, maybe—it seems the prospect of being Mr. Mom to his two young fraternal twins, James and Cassandra (now four years old) is taking precedent.
“You may never see me again,” the former long-distance truck driver teases, in the same breath recalling Dashiell Hammett who, according to Davis, never wrote another novel after making a mint penning The Thin Man. “Do you know what Hammett said? He said all he wanted to do was stir martinis and get drunk with his buddies.” Surely the man who proselytized about third-world mega-slums in Planet of Slums isn’t yearning to drink leisurely with his friends as Hammett did?
No, Davis yearns for home.
He hankers for a hike up Mt. Baldy. He finds the howl of coyotes “reassuring.” He craves the heaping portions of Centro Basco in Chino. He would feel quite at home at a Redlands East Valley/Miller football showdown. Boy, would he ever.
“Fontana High used to have the greatest team,” remembers Davis, who is greatly impressed by the fierceness of the competitive gridiron rivalries afoot in the Citrus Belt and Sunkist CIF Leagues. In Inlandia’s closing essay “The Inland Empire,” Davis writes that “some of the meanest prep football” is right here in the IE, where it’s an “ecumenical religion” to the people. “They still play ball with milltown passion,” he says, referring to the influx of eastern born steel workers urgently imported to staff Kaiser Steel during World War II who essentially shaped interscholastic sports here in the mold of the intense prep football cultures of Pennsylvania and Ohio.
And yet don’t be fooled. Conversations with Davis can shift as quickly into pedagogic high gear, with him lamenting the “natural tragedy and death of the San Bernardino Forest” caused by dry oak and bark beetles, or of memories growing up in a bowling alley.
“To be honest,” Davis says of his good friend Straight. “I don’t know how she does it—raising kids and writing books. I can’t do that . . . it’s too much work!”
For Straight it’s simpler than Davis thinks. “I don’t party a lot,” she says. “I don’t watch TV, I don’t talk on the phone. After I’m through with work, and I’ve put the kids to bed, around ten o’clock I sit down and write or do some reading . . . till about midnight or so,” this last bit with a laugh. “I’m 47 years old, I can’t stay up as long as I used to!”
But as high profile as Straight is in literary circles, she’s just mom to the casual observer, chauffeuring her daughters to and from school and cheering for their volleyball team, helping out at the Riverside library, and in general loving her matronly duties.
“The December sky is golden” she beams, basking in the radiant early winter sunlight that Riverside brings with everlasting regularity, another wonderful afternoon in her paradise. “The palm frond is glittering. How can you not love this place?”
Straight’s ultimate valentine to the city that reared her is the jewel of the Creative Writing Department at UCR, where among other odd jobs she helps organize the much-anticipated annual Writer’s Week (this year will feature Joyce Carol Oates, February 5–9, and the public is welcome). Known as a bit of a taskmaster, Straight has forward advice to scribblers of all levels.
“Don’t be afraid to use the landscape you came in,” she says. “If you have a particular landscape, use it.”
Straight plans on using the money from the Lannan award to work on her seventh novel and Davis to spend more time with his children—that is, if he’s not gearing up a broadside on the deforestation of America.
Both Straight and Davis are professors and progenitors, authors and activists.
More importantly, they’re our own—and that’s something to go hog wild about.
A podcast of Mike Davis with Susan Straight speaking with the Lannan Foundation will be available on January 16 at www.lannan.org