Thursday, May 14, 2015

Book Review: "All Involved" by Ryan Gattis

I remember the beating of Rodney King, but what I remember more than that was the outrage and violence which exploded in Los Angeles in April of 1992, when three of the four white policemen accused of the beating were completely acquitted, while no verdict was reached on the fourth. It was utterly surreal to be living in Washington, DC, watching the rioting, looting, destruction, and violence that followed, a feeling I'd never thought I'd have again, yet I felt similarly a few weeks ago when similar incidents occurred in Baltimore.

Over a six-day period in 1992, 53 people were killed in the riots. But what few really understood was the violence that occurred outside the immediate epicenter of the riots, as Los Angeles-area gang members used the incidents as camouflage for their own activities, settling old scores with rival gangs jockeying for control, and taking whatever they could, by whatever means necessary. Ryan Gattis' magnificent, powerful All Involved is a fictionalized account of gang members and others caught up in the violence on the fringes of the riots, and how righting alleged wrongs and working to save face proved dangerous and often deadly.

Ernesto Vera works on a taco truck, but he has dreams of becoming a chef, and wants to get an apprenticeship at an exclusive Japanese restaurant so he can learn from the masters. Sent home early by a boss worried about the rioting, he is nearly home when he encounters a group of gang members looking to settle a score with his younger brother. This clash sets up a series of confrontations that affect a number of lives, including nurses, firemen, and students utterly unprepared for what is coming down the pike, both good and bad.

"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, even 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 empathize."

Gattis tells 17 interconnected stories, imbuing his characters with life, emotion, and complexity, and he manages to make many of them characters you root for despite what they're doing. It's a talented author who makes you care about those who kill, injure, steal, and destroy, yet he doesn't paint over their flaws either. As you might imagine, some of the chapters are more interesting than others—I honestly would have been happy if the book had remained focused on the rival gangs and those caught up in their activities; I felt the book lost a bit of steam when it turned to other characters with only a slight connection.

Gattis' storytelling is gritty, violent, poetic, and powerful, and I was utterly hooked for the majority of the book. We hear all too often about the human toll that violence takes, but All Involved brings that home without being overly preachy. It's an unflinching look at a not-too-far-distant time in our society that sadly, we're not completely past yet. If you're a crime novel fan, this is definitely one to read and savor.

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