Book review: All Involved by Ryan Gattis

Police patrol the streets after rioting sparked by the acquittal of policemen accused of beating Rodney King. Picture: Hal Garb/Getty
Police patrol the streets after rioting sparked by the acquittal of policemen accused of beating Rodney King. Picture: Hal Garb/Getty
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‘I SEEN this city taking itself to Heaven in pieces”. These words, uttered by a traumatised, homeless veteran, are like an awful, prophetic refrain across Ryan Gattis’s truly remarkable novel. Set over the six days of the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of the policemen who beat Rodney King, this kaleidoscopic work is unflinching, unsettling and unforgettable.

The facts are set out in a prefatory note: 10,904 arrests, 2,383 injuries, 11,113 fires started, over a billion dollars of damage and 60 deaths – though it mordantly notes these are only the ones directly attributable to the rioting, not the inter-gang violence which became pandemic as the riots raged. This is followed by an epigraph from Thomas Pynchon, lamenting that despite the efforts in the wake of the Watts Riots of 1965, that “there are still the poor, the defeated, the criminal, the desperate, all hanging in there with what must seem a terrible vitality”. Pynchon is a wise choice: the novel is suffused with the apocalyptic vision of the poet laureate of paranoia. All Involved is not a novelisation of the riots. Instead, it uses fiction to bring the reader uncomfortably, flinchingly close to the humanity and the reality of the moment.

Stylistically, however, Gattis is very different from the zany derangement of Pynchon. Gattis is a realist, and an extremely accomplished one; although that does not prohibit him from investing scenes with a kind of symbolism. The novel opens with Ernesto Vera, a decent man who runs a Tacos El Unico truck, going home from work, anxious that his boss has said that on account of “that thing north of here” he probably shouldn’t turn up to work tomorrow.

As he heads back to Lynwood, musing about how astonishing he finds it that Japanese sushi chefs have managed to do something so different with avocado, three men accost him. He is beaten, tied to the back of a car, dragged through the streets and stabbed. His chapter ends: “I know I just think I’m melting into it because my brain’s low on oxygen, and I know because that’s logic, because brains don’t work right without food, and I know I’m not really becoming part of the sky, and I know because, I know because” – he does not even get a full stop.

Killing the initial point of view character in the opening chapter, and, moreover, having him narrate his own death, seems to break all the “rules” of writing. Here they work wonderfully, and there will be others later on who talk us into their own oblivion. The novel then cycles through other characters in the first person – Ernesto’s sister, his brother, who was involved in a Chicano gang, the gang leader, his consigliere, his rival, a nurse, a firefighter, a graffiti artist, a child who witnessed the attack, the terrifying “Anonymous” on the penultimate day and others.

As the National Guard and the Marine Corps take to the streets, alongside Korean shopkeepers trying to defend their businesses, and a curfew descends, the gangs take the riots as an opportunity to set in place an almost Jacobean revenge tragedy. “This whole entire scene,” says one of the gangbangers, “says the same to me as it says to every other knucklehead who ever had bad thoughts across this whole city: now’s your f***ing day, homie. Felicidades, you won the lottery!”

The interconnected narrative may be most familiar from films like Short Cuts and Pulp Fiction, but it does have literary precedents: Donald Ray Pollock’s collection, Knockemstiff; Felipe Alfau’s Locos; Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town; Sherwood Anderson’s Winesberg, Ohio. It is, however, very difficult to do well. If the connections between the characters become at all convenient or arbitrary it can seem forced and unrealistic (though there is a benefit in describing the claustrophobia of small communities, such as immigrant ghettos or gangs, where everyone really does know everyone else). If there are too few connections, the narrative whirls off into discrete stories.

There is a pleasing balance in All Involved in that while some narratives are resolved definitively – and the links between the characters range from blood, to allegiance, to vendetta – others are left unresolved. There is a poignancy in not knowing whether two characters will realise they love each other, or if a determined attempt to break from the past will succeed. The choreography of Gattis’s plot is elegant, from the mention in the first chapter of “Termite”, who will later narrate a section under another name, to the characters who do not narrate but cut across the narratives, to the way in which an urban legend or rumour will eventually be incarnated in a specific character.

The descriptions of violence are never sensationalised, and indeed, the true horror is not in the guns and knives and baseball bats and Molotov cocktails, but in the sense of the inevitability of the riots. One character, a coke addict who is underestimated by everyone, thinks back to the riots of the 1940s and 1960s and notes, with relish, “The way it’s blowing up, this one’s overdue. This shit is like a bank loan. With interest.” To look at Oakland, Ferguson, Brooklyn, St Louis, Atlanta makes one do the maths, and tremble.

In a more meditative section, one character thinks: “Someday, this is just going to be a story”, and corrects himself, “A war story.” It is. As a book that takes deprivation and loyalty, dispossession and the bravery of those who “understand this whole world, not just half of it” seriously, it deserves, frankly, to sell more copies than Trainspotting. n