Ryan Gattis brings Sounds of the City to Jura Unbound
Ryan Gattis hollers the sound of one famous city - LA - engulfed by fear and fire in '92. Here he discusses his novel All Involved and the visceral vignettes he will bring to Jura Unbound, alongside fellow authors Marlon James and Lisa McInerney.
All Involved is already drawing comparisons with The Wire, not least by Ryan Gattis's publishers, who see common cause with the Baltimore-based HBO series about gangs, police, politicians and the civilians caught in their wake. The author admits to us that he watched the show “a lot, over and over,” though insists that any echoes of it in his book are not deliberate, if indeed they exist. “I remember thinking very concretely that I will never write anything this good. So I hope, at the very least, that it planted a seed in my mind, subconsciously, to at least realise that this is what can be accomplished, with truly transcendent storytelling about an urban environment and crime and also the people who live in the margins.”
Gattis’s work is set in early 90s Los Angeles County, a decade earlier than The Wire and three time zones away. And where the TV show concerned a predominately African-American urban area, All Involved focuses instead on the largely Latino-Hispanic city of Lynwood. So the comparison is, on the surface, at least a little trite, a link made to tap into a demographic of potential book buyers more than anything else. Beyond the differences in subject matter, though, the show and the book share common ground in their authorship.
In the years since The Wire’s last season in 2008, creator David Simon has become one of the most high profile critics of America’s racial inequalities, and of the people and institutions that perpetuate them. This should come as something of a surprise given that, like Gattis, Simon is white and therefore not a direct victim of said inequalities. Still, Gattis, a self-described ‘white-boy writer from Colorado’, and Simon before him have endeavoured to tell stories on behalf of communities of which they are not part. Both have done so with every effort at honesty, sensitivity and nuance – and both with a degree of creative bravery. When white authors take on the voices of minority characters, hamfistedness is quickly and rightly ridiculed. Kathryn Stockett’s bestseller The Help serves as a cautionary tale. Commercially popular, and adapted for the screen, some critics and viewers were less than enthusiastic about its treatment of race relations and black subjectivity. The Wire seems to have weathered these critical waters quite smoothly; whether All Involved will fare as well remains to be seen. Gattis is undoubtedly a deft storyteller though.
The book takes the 1992 Los Angeles race riots as its focal point. Over six days in April and May of that year, in response to the acquittal of the police officers videotaped beating Rodney King in March of 1991, Los Angeles erupted into one of the largest episodes of civil disturbance in US history. All Involved is a series of first-person vignettes spanning this period that brought race relations clattering back into focus. Similar to The Wire, the book is populated by both gangsters and the so called ‘uninvolved’ – those not affiliated with gangs – from nurses and firefighters to the homeless and, crucially, the police. In the Angeleno storytelling tradition, diverse character arcs interweave and collide throughout. In this, the book shares a formal grounding with Paul Haggis’s 2004 film Crash, itself an attempt at broaching the city’s racial disparities, though one that met with a response even more iffy than The Help did (as it happens, Haggis is slated to direct David Simon’s forthcoming HBO miniseries, Show Me a Hero). Gattis’s story cycle is, mercifully, more carefully assembled than Haggis’ effort.
All Involved opens with the murder of a young man on his way home from work. It’s a heavy, unsparing introduction to Gattis’s written world, and to LA violence. We bear witness to multiple stab wounds, a broken jaw and a ‘skull skidding over asphalt.’ The attack sparks, inevitably, a series of reprisals between rival Chicano ‘clicks’. Ernesto, the victim, though not a gangster himself, has relatives who are. They and their adversaries use the race riots as cover for exercises in retribution and conquest. With swathes of LA County caught up in the unrest, the very police that played such an important role in inflaming tensions are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to protect its inhabitants. After countless killings and burned out buildings, following an encounter with a barely teenage pimp, one character on the fringes of the gang activity can only say that ‘LA has gone fucking crazy. All the way crazy.’ Though there’s little attempt, here, to unpack the place and the time, he does get at the scarcely believable extremes to which the city succumbed during those six days in 1992.
It’s drug addicted Antonio ‘Lil Creeper’ Delgado, one of Gattis’s most compelling characters, who is most direct in trying to make sense of the chaos. He wonders at the cyclical nature of unrest in LA’s black and brown neighbourhoods. After the violence between service personnel, predominately white, and Mexican-Americans in the Zoot Suit Riots of 1944, people – white people – were quick in forgetting. ‘They forget about it,’ he says, ‘and they forget they even thought it was bad, and for a while nothing happens, but nothing got fixed either, it’s just getting drier, ready for another burn.’ Then came the Watts riots of 1965. ‘And shit hasn’t changed since. So that’s, what? Twenty years apart for race riots? Enough time for everybody to forget again, right? Cuz it’s nineteen-ninety-fucking-two, and this’s what? Like, thirty? Probably a little less? Doesn’t matter. The way it’s blowing up, this one’s overdue.’
Gattis himself is of a similar mind. “I think that people are awakening to the fact that not as much progress has been made as perhaps we’d like. In ’92 camcorders were only recently commercially available and now every single person has a video camera in their pocket. I’d like to think that this will lead to change but I don’t know how hopeful I am, if only because a lot of the underlying issues that tend to lead to rioting: lack of education, lack of after school programs, lack of healthcare and certainly a lack of jobs in some of these neighbourhoods, when you combine all of that with police brutality or injustice, it’s unfortunately only a matter of time.”
And so on to the present day. Some 23 years after the Rodney King riots, minority communities across America are once again clamouring to be heard and to be treated fairly. The role of law and its enforcement is central, just as was the case in 1992. And in spite of the fact that there are ample spokespeople from within minority communities – indeed, it seems slightly absurd even to make the point – it is the David Simons of this world who seem best able to gain popular traction. Ryan Gattis, in writing a book as ambitious as All Involved, has taken on this same mantle, acting as intermediary, flagging the inequity that many are so ready to ignore and forget. He’ll doubtless be aware of how potentially fraught is the role he’s assumed, and he hopes the next book from Lynwood is written by a local: “Certainly, in America, there are those who are given bullhorns and those who are not. There are an awful lot of obstacles that exist for the folks in Lynwood in order to be successful. One of the reasons why I wrote this book is because I’d really really love for the next book about Lynwood to be coming from an author who grew up in Lynwood and who knows it and saw it every day. So, I’d like to think that, if my book had anything to do with something like that happening, I would be really happy indeed.” As would, no doubt, many people of the city’s residents. Until such time as that book is published, and until such time as wider audiences are more willing to engage with the works of minority writers, there will be books like All Involved. And if the confidence of Gattis’s prose is anything to go by, he may prove as prominent an advocate as Simon before him.