Picks and Pans Review: Blacker Than a Thousand Midnights

updated 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Susan Straight

A fire is raging in the mountains high above Southern California's palm desert, and a black firefighter named Darnell Tucker is thinking of his pregnant fiancée: "He stopped to touch a tree, and closed his eyes—the roar was closer, stronger. When a deer leapt past him into the canyon he thought about their bellies, tight in the spring when they walked slowly up the napalmed feed trails, their round pale awkwardness the same color as Brenda's belly skin, lighter, thinner, every week."

That fleeting instant is typical of the passionate spontaneity that carries this novel forward from first breath to last. One does not merely read about Darnell but inhabits him as he reluctantly leaves his job and takes up new duties as husband and father. Fighting fires was his one happiness—and his only escape from the drug-driven, drive-by terrors of urban life in the parched city of Rio Seco. Author Straight makes it easy to share his pangs of nostalgia—as if fighting forest fires were indeed a kind of lost Eden—as Darnell struggles to maintain both his marriage and his pride. A lyrical and intelligent storyteller, she also burns clean the forbidding barriers of culture and race that blind people to one another. (Hyperion, $21.95)

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