I do love it when a book takes me by surprise, even more so when one takes me out of my comfort zone. What makes this all the better is when this comes at the least expected time. This happened with All Involved by Ryan Gattis which when I was first emailed about, being told it was the tale of the 1992 LA Riots from a spectrum of seventeen witnesses and participants, I instantly thought ‘that isn’t my cup of tea’. Thank goodness then for several people raving about it and saying I must read it (or else, in some cases – Nina) because one I started I couldn’t stop reading, even when I sometimes wanted to.
All Involved is based around the true events in April 1992. After one of the most notorious, racially charged trials in American history, the city of L.A. exploded in violence and with Gattis at the help this reads like the book equivalent of a rollercoaster. For six days, Los Angeles is a city ablaze. For six days, seventeen people are caught in the chaos. For six days, Los Angeles shows the world what happens when laws are no longer enforceable. Once you start the book and become witness to the horrific death of Ernesto Vera on his walk home, you are instantly embroiled in the life of one part of LA where, with no justice on the streets, anything is possible and anyone could be the victim of other people’s pasts, other people’s debts and other people’s ability to do just what the hell they like.
“Don’t do this.” I hear myself say the words. It surprises me how calm they are, considering my heart is going a million beats per minute. “Please. I didn’t do anything to you. I have money. Whatever you want.”
They respond, these three, but not with words. Rough hands jerk me up on my feet, out of the Boardwalk and into the back alley with garages on both sides. But they’re just setting me up.
Quick weak punches hit me in my kidneys, my stomach, my ribs too. I get it from all angles. They don’t feel hard but they steal my breath away. At first, I don’t understand, but then I see the blood, and I stare at it on my shirt, and as I am wondering why I didn’t feel the stabs, a bat hits me.
In a novel where not one, not two, not three but seventeen narrators take us through the streets during those six days, Gattis does some very clever things. Firstly, the way in which we meet these narrators is done incredibly skilfully. We have Ernesto, who through some wizardry Gattis makes us like, know is a good guy and feel utterly bereft by the death of. We also know Ernesto is an innocent and that this is an act of revenge and settling scored, also increasing the horror of it. When we then meet Ernesto’s sister Payasa, we learn why the act of revenge yet we also stay on the side of ‘good’ (if you can call it that, which we will come to later) as nor is involved in the gang culture of the streets. Until she decides that she wants revenge herself.
But then it dawns on me like a math problem my stupid ass finally figured out. There are no rules now. None. Not with people rioting. I shiver when I realise every single cop in the city is somewhere else and that means its officially hunting season for on every fucking fool who ever got away with anything and damn, does this neighbourhood have a long memory. I snort and take a second to appreciate the evil weight of it.
Within just 56 pages we have gone from being complete outsiders to the gang culture of the time, to heading straight towards the heart of it. We have also gone from being people who witness an act of revenge and are horrified by it to, if we are really honest and after the first two chapters you feel it believe me, understanding why someone would then want to go and participate in an act of violence for revenge. It is expertly done and incredible how quickly our morals shift, even if ever so slightly, when we are put into another person’s shoes and given an insight into their life and all that is involved around it.
Imagine then what happens as we start to go further into the lives of the neighbourhoods, the different gangs, the police, the nurses and doctors, the firemen. Gattis takes us into all these worlds within a district and makes us experience their way of life and I challenge you to think things are as simple as gangs ‘bad’ and cops ‘good’ by the end of All Involved, there are too many layers we discover as we go, all the grey areas and the thoughts provoked. There are some other major moral questions thrown in when we see cops arresting people instead of helping putting out fires, or putting out fires when they should be arresting people – when their resources are limited and they can’t look at the full facts, what can they do.
What I found all the more compelling was that while part of you can try and say ‘oh this is a fictional account’ you know that Gattis has based this around how people who he has spoken to felt at the time as well as all the research that he has done into the events that happened. We get both the feelings inside the heads of all involved, wherever they are in the area, and we also get the facts. My jaw hit the floor as characters were dispatched (some you hope get their comeuppance, most you don’t) and then all the more when I learnt some of the facts.
For example there were over 102,000 gang members estimated in LA in 1991 a year, who whatever their motive were part of 771 murders. When you then learn that in the first two days of the riots 3000 guns were looted and many people had axes to grind and grudges bearing fruit, whatever the moral behind them, you see you’re only getting a sample of what was going on. It makes it all the more disconcerting when you realise people aren’t learning, whatever ‘side’ they are on as the cycle of riots has been roughly every twenty years along with peaks in racial issues, and look what is happening in the news right now. It is scary, but we need books like this.
There’s a truth in that somewhere and maybe it’s this – 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. Doctors, nurses, firemen, cops – we know it. We see it. We negotiate with death where we work because that’s just part of the job. We see its layers, its unfairness, its unavoidability. Still, we fight that losing battle. We try to maneuver around it, occasionally even steal from it. And when you come across somebody else who seems to know it like you do, well, you can’t help but stop and wonder what it’d be like to be with someone who can empathise.
I was completely gripped by All Involved. I have not devoured a novel in such a way, both in terms of the speed in which I read it and in the way it consumed my thoughts and some of my dreams, in years. It completely encompassed my brain while I was reading it and for weeks (and now months) after having read it I am still thinking about it, the characters and also what I would do in a situation like that if I was any of those people. I came away shocked and horrified but I also came away with a greater understanding into the lives of people who I never imagined I could empathise with. That is what the best of fiction does though isn’t it? Gattis has written a visceral, challenging, scary yet hopeful and questioning novel which I urge you all to read if you haven’t already. Easily one of my books of 2015, I need to get my hands on all his others when I am in the USA next month.
If you would like to hear Ryan talking about All Involved in more detail then do check out the latest episode of You Wrote The Book where we have a fascinating (if I do say so myself) conversation about the book. I would also, of course, love to hear your thoughts and reactions to All Involved if you have read it already. If you haven’t then why are you still reading this? Get thee to a library or bookshop right now, it’s essential reading.