When the Los Angeles riots occurred in April-May 1992 I was only a 13 year-old boy growing up in Maine. Living in the most extreme diagonally-opposite corner of America from where this was taking place it was difficult for me to make sense of the news footage of burning buildings, looting and violent arrests. Looking back on it, I’ve read accounts which have speculated how the court’s acquittal of officers involved in violently beating Rodney King during his arrest sparked six days of rioting in the city. A combination of timely social, economic and ethnic factors influence how such a decision can provoke citizens to openly rebel and tear apart their own community. I witnessed it myself here in London in August 2011 when a shooting by police sparked a series of riots across the country. It’s all very well theorizing about the horrendous events which occurred over those days in LA but what did it feel like? Ryan Gattis has skilfully created a novel which offers a range of voices from many different backgrounds as they navigate through their imploding city over the chaotic period of the Los Angeles riots. It’s a tremendously immersive experience which gives the reader a dynamic heart-felt understanding of individual points of view amidst the chaotic backdrop of a virtually lawless city.
The novel includes the voices of the working class, gangsters, a fireman, law enforcement, the homeless and other civilians who all range in ethnicity from Hispanic to Korean to White to African-American with many of mixed-racial backgrounds. How Gattis convincingly embodies all these different voices with their particular nuances of speech and slang is astounding. I had the pleasure of hearing Gattis read at Damian Barr’s literary salon on June 8th and it was so impressive how he inhabited the speech and character of the Mexican food van worker Ernesto as he tried to walk home after a hard day’s work. He empathises fully with other individuals who have entirely different backgrounds and experiences; in doing so he helps the reader to feel what they feel and understand why they make the choices they do. It’s his talent for paying tribute to a person’s humanity which makes reading this novel such a fully involving emotional experience. By including an enormous range of convincingly differentiated voices the reader acquires knowledge of the immense diversity of the city and an understanding for the points of view of characters who you might not ordinarily sympathize with.
There are multiple threads to the stories which run through these characters’ narratives. The main events we follow have nothing directly to do with people reacting to the verdict on Rodney King’s assailants, but people who use the disruption as an opportunity to settle old scores. The primary drive of the book is set in motion from what happens in the first chapter when Ernesto leaves a child’s party event catered by the taco truck he works for. It leads to subsequent instances of gang warfare which reverberates throughout the community. Causalities mount and bystanders are drawn into the fray. Our brief encounters with such a range of characters give us a fuller three-dimensional view of the cityscape as we encounter locations, people and experiences from different points of view. This is a tremendously effective way of bringing the story alive and widening an understanding of events rather than seeing them through one character’s perspective or a fully omniscient narrative.
Through these voices the reader encounters a range of people who draw you into their individualized understanding of the city’s history and the cultural/social distinctions which spur conflict. There is an armed teenage Korean-American boy who journeys through the neighbourhood with his father seeking to protect the Korean businesses which are under threat of looting and burning. We learn from a gangster who calls himself Lil Creeper that some outward appearances of ignorance are an act to pass undetected: “Life goes way better when people think you’re estupido. That’s a fact.” Through the voice of a seemingly cold-hearted killer we hear flickers of his humanity: “Bad things happen, they do, but when they do, they can be quick every time and it’s better for everybody.” We get details of how well trained some gang members are in matters of combat/military tactics/forensics/legal matters making any investigation or legislative justice virtually impossible. The reader hears how stealing and killing makes sense to gangsters just as it does for members of secret armed forces teams who illegally dole out justice in a shockingly reprehensible way by “Viewing our prospective targets neither as victims nor as people, but as unpunished criminals getting a dose of the only medicine they understand.” These multifarious perspectives make the seemingly senseless disorder and violence which America watches on TV news acquire a terrifying kind of sense.
By collecting this cacophony of fascinating voices, the reader also gradually develops a feeling for how Los Angeles is a character in itself. The riots don’t merely disrupt and transform it, but are a symptom of a sickness which has always lain dormant. One character remarks that “I’m staring at a war zone. In South Central. It’s like somebody packed up all the shit I been seeing in Lebanon almost my whole life, put it in a box, shipped it over, and opened up that chaos in my backyard.” Over the course of the novel a terrifying sense builds up that this thing called society is a lie and all that exists are isolated groups of people who live by their own rules rather than any governmental law. It’s Lord of the Flies in everyday life. The riots simply tear away the veil hiding the truth about how society really functions. Another character reflects that “there’s a hidden America inside the one we portray to the world, and only a small group of people ever actually see it. Some of us are locked into it by birth or geography, but the rest of us just work here.” These citizens feel disenfranchised from the society they live in and don’t see themselves in any idealized portrayals of it. It’s why individuals feel empowered emblazoning their name across the city in graffiti because “They say I exist.” Rather than being fearful of the sudden lawlessness of the riots, many people feel empowered “Cuz the world we live in’s completely flipped now. Up’s down. Down’s up. Bad is fucking good. And badges don’t mean shit. Cuz cops don’t get to own the city today. We do.” There is a feeling that some of these people are simply taking ownership of the city which always belonged to them. We also get a sense of the cyclical nature of social tensions within this city which inevitably lead to unchecked violence: “L.A. has a short fucking memory. It never learns nothing. And that’s what’s gonna kill this city. Watch. There’ll be another race riot in 2022. Or before, I dunno.” This foreboding sense that any order brought about will inevitably unravel again at some point leaves a lasting impression that the city’s disparate groups need to be connected together through forms of outreach to try to quell future violence.
“All Involved” includes a lot of frank portrayals of assaults and destruction which can make it distressing to read. What’s brilliant about the way Gattis constructs his story is that after spending time inside the head of gangster and developing a sympathy for his point of view, your feelings about his being assaulted in a later section are very different from how they would be if you’d read about him without really knowing him. Moreover an impression is made of what lawlessness really looks like and how harm can come to individuals whether they think they are involved or not. It’s a stark reminder how “that’s this crazy life. It comes at you how it wants to, whether you’re ready or not, and sometimes it takes what it shouldn’t. Sometimes, that’s the only thing you can count on it doing – taking.” Even if we like to feel we’re living in a structured well-ordered society it can take surprisingly little for chaos to burst into your life. Rather than give a sense we should be perpetually uneasy about this, “All Involved” reinforces your faith in people’s ability to care for each other if the right connection can be found. This novel is a fantastic achievement with a mesmerising story and characters that leave a lasting impression.