Fourteen stories--character sketches--set mostly in a black community in southern California; winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize. Straight takes readers behind the scenes of familiar stereotypes: showing why young Demone (""Training"") can't do his schoolwork; why the bereaved, rather heroic Shawan (""The Box"") has such a fierce attachment to her radio; how love and hope turn to frustration and marital violence for Rosa and her basketball-player husband (""Off-Season""). Most of all, Straight fights stereotype by showing her characters hard at work: Nacho (""Aquaboogie"") deals with constant insults while working as a janitor to pay for a college art course; the protagonist of ""Esther's,"" earning money through cooking and hair-braiding; is harassed by her husband's girlfriend, who reports her for operating an unlicensed business; Karen (""Sweet Thang"") muses about what's happened to her crowd while she's busy in a nursing home; Darnell (""Toe Up and Smoke Dreaming"") fights fires with the Forest Service, aware that as a black man he'll be denied a permanent job; Lanier (""Chitlins"") works nights and then tends his pig farm, threatened by real-estate development. Straight skillfully evokes the language, moods and rhythms of many types of work, but the repeated structure (a person's life experience played back while on-the-job against a broader canvas of racial injustice) eventually fails to engage. Still, an affectionate, vernacular portrait of a strong community under siege by racism from without, drags and violence from within.