A spirited debut embodies an intrinsic, disjointed portrait of a poor black street in L.A. pre the ’92 riots.
A motley collection of its hardscrabble residents tell the up-and-down story of Piedmont Street, named for the 19th-century lawyer who rid the area of “plaguing canine hordes,” according to one chapter’s “Official History.” The first citizen to set the ominous scene is Daniel, hustler turned preacher, who has been called by God—literally, out of bed one morning—to pound the pavement declaring His Word to indifferent and increasingly hostile sinners. He reappears from another angle as the odd, dreaded Uncle Daniel in “A Knock on the Door/Louise,” where he makes his increasingly ghastly appearance on Sunday before dinner to lecture his nieces on the Lord’s “divine plan.” Another local denizen who recounts her plight is piano teacher Cecile; having fallen on “a hard time (only temporary she was sure),” she is forced to line up at the pawnshop to sell her cherished Auntie’s moonstone brooch. The experience of dealing with the miserly pawnbroker becomes a creepy prefiguration of her fall from grace—and the cataclysmic fire that will follow. Some of these folksy character studies feel like complete short stories in themselves: “Red Lipstick/Albee & Lettie,” for example, about the impending meeting after many years of two middle-aged sisters, one healthy and Christian, the other prodigal and ailing, who are destined to rehash their smoldering family dynamic until death; or “Eve’s Daughter/Bernadette,” about the struggling seamstress Bernadette, who pulled herself out of poverty and away from her mother’s curse of morbidity by opening her own shop on Piedmont Street; now, fatigued by surviving her loved ones, she watches the signs of doom slowly appear in the area. The self-sufficient pieces can’t—not tidily—be tacked together to make a cohesive work, yet Barnes’s spare writing and poignant detail render her characters memorable.
An exciting debut, if still in the process of formation.