Friday, 25 September 2015

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:

Eleven years after the Brixton riots, nineteen years before the London riots, Los Angeles exploded. Following the following the acquittal of police officers who had been videoed beating a young black man, Rodney King, the city erupted in riots that lasted for six days. In a city with just 7,900 police to over 100,000 gang members, and where guns – including automatic weapons – were available with chilling ease, those riots resulted in 53 deaths, over 2,000 injuries and $1B worth of damage to property.

Ryan Gattis’s novel, All Involved, begins on the evening of the first day and the story passes from one narrator to the next. Victims of violence, perpetrators, onlookers, a nurse, a fireman, a homeless man, a member of the military squads that were brought in to quell the violence – seventeen in all are given voice.

This is not the place to come to try and understand the causes of the riots, or to see the bigger picture. Rather, the novel focuses on one neighbourhood - the Chicano (Mexican American) district of Lynwood in South Central LA – and on one particular chain of events, starting with the brutal murder of a taco salesman who just happens to be brother to two gang members.

What happens next has almost nothing to do with Rodney King and everything to do with “a sweaty, hot feeling of we-can-do-whatever... [that] feels like way too much coffee.”

Gattis is not a Latino ex-gang member, but a white boy from Colorado. Inspiration came when he spent time as part of a street-art gang in LA. As he said in an interview in the Guardian:

“The most fascinating people want to talk to you when you’re working on a wall in a neighbourhood… Over time, the riots came up, and they always reacted as if it were an unhealed wound… as if they were still processing 20 years later.”

Gattis challenges the reader to think about myriad pressures that could make one twelve year old child desperate to be part of a violent gang while another just wants to get as far away as possible; or that make it imperative for one violent act to be met with another, yet more brutal, in a cycle of violence that feels unstoppable.

There is a huge sense of wasted talent here. Of intelligent, passionate young people who, in another environment would be writers, artists, musicians, scientists, engineers, but whose lives here have been circumscribed by poverty, lack of opportunity, and a desperate scrabble for the crumbs from the table of a very different America.

As Gattis said in an interview for Esquire:

“Violence, crime, riots, chaos—that does not negate family and love and loyalty and hope ... If anything, the darkness makes those things more incandescent.

The hardest part about reading this book is the knowledge that – with the grim events of 2015 – so little has changed in twenty years. Sadly, I suspect few in the LA’s Black and Latino populations would be surprised by that.

As gang leader Big Fate says, "Welcome to my America, chabron."

I am in no position to judge how accurate this portrait of Chicano gang culture is. If you want to read something in the authentic voice of LA, try Always Running by Luis J. Rodriguez, (an ex-gang member and Poet Laureate of Los Angeles) or Monster: the autobiography of an LA gang member, by Sanyika Shakur.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle; Feral Youth by Polly Courtney; Trainspotting by Irving Welsh

Avoid If You Dislike: Graphic violence, drug use and extreme bad language. Books written in street slang.

Perfect accompaniment: Enchiladas with cold beer

Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Historical Fiction, Urban Realism

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