Ryan Gattis’s novel All Involved is set in South Central Los Angeles in 1992, during the riots that began after four white police officers were acquitted of beating the black taxi-driver Rodney King. The inadvertent coup that the book’s publishers have scored by bringing it out in the wake of the Baltimore and Ferguson riots only underlines how far we haven’t come since then: some lines from this buzzing thriller might still be quotes from yesterday’s news stories, such as the impassioned complaint of one character against the police: ‘If you’re brown or black, you’re worth nothing. Killing you is like taking out the trash. That’s how they think.’
Judging by damage caused, Gattis writes, the 1992 riots were ‘the greatest civic disturbance in the history of the United States’. In six days, at least 60 people were killed, more than 2,000 were injured, upwards of a billion dollars’ worth of property was damaged and some 40,000 people were deprived of their livelihoods because of arson or fire damage.
This is the backdrop against which All Involved unfolds, but the novel isn’t quite the socio-political panoply that its title, which plays on a gang phrase for being connected with organised crime, seems to suggest. It consists of 17 first-person narratives — fictional, but apparently based on interviews by the author with gang members — describing a bloody vendetta between Hispanic gangs who seized on the chaos of the race riots as a chance to settle scores.
The story begins with the opportunistic murder of an innocent chef whose brother and sister are both ‘involved’, but rapidly becomes a Jacobean spiral of revenge and counter-revenge by people who, in sections of the city effectively deserted by the police, are living out what one character calls a ‘Devil’s Night in broad daylight’.
On the edge of the narrative, other voices swirl. There’s a Korean shopkeeper, a fireman, a nurse and a soldier from ‘a US government agency that I cannot currently name’ with his own grimly pragmatic approach to gang violence. Each of these characters proves to have a tangential connection to the plot as it assembles itself from the sequence of apparently discrete accounts, and Gattis manages this in an extremely satisfying way, with characters named in previous segments narrating later ones, or mysteries left open in early chapters offering solutions to the attentive reader further on. This technique will be familiar to viewers of the TV series The Wire, which, of course, borrowed them from novels in the first place. How the snake swallows its own tail.
The author’s ear for the rhythms of American speech is another standout. All Involved swings with dialect and slang to the point that it feels compelled to provide a glossary at the end (though I’m not sure we needed ‘chorizo: spicy pork sausage’ or ‘hood: abbreviation of neighbourhood’); and there’s deep thought going on behind this writerly novel about the language of people whose prime modes of expression are not written. The back-and-forth of vernacular speech lends humour and humanity to the book, giving its crowded and often desperate scenes the flavour of authentic experience. ‘Work in LA, live way the fuck away,’ rhymes one character as he heads to a fatal assignation in the hills above town. Another, as he contemplates quitting the life of crime, delivers my favourite line of the book: ‘I was just like them French people, when I had to say “La Vi,” and be out.’
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