All Involved, Ryan Gattis’s latest novel, is one of the most eagerly anticipated books of 2015. It is set in Los Angeles and begins on 29 April 1992, the day that a jury acquitted three LAPD officers of using excessive force in the arrest of a black man, Rodney King.
As the novel’s glossary helpfully informs us, “all involved” is slang for “someone participating in gang activity”. As riots erupted across the city in the week after the acquittals, many of LA’s gangs exploited the opportunity to settle scores.
The victim of that first act, Ernesto Vera, is an innocent, hardworking and compassionate young man. His death is a revenge killing, and what follows is a series of interconnecting episodes as events play themselves out over six days.
This is a tale of intra- and inter-ethnic conflict; a seemingly lawless war of all against all involving Latinos, blacks, Koreans and, ultimately, the biggest gangs of all, the police and National Guard.
It is hard to sympathise with characters who snitch on their own mates, drug, sleep with, betray and brutalise young women and casually dispatch fellow gang members as well as their foes with impunity.
Rather than simply condemning the rioters the challenge is to contextualise their predicament and understand why they behave as they do.
Of course, hardly any actual rioters knew King and undoubtedly many did exploit the mayhem to pursue their own agendas. As with the widespread condemnation of the 2011 English riots however, the vilification of those who participated misses the point.
The wider context in which these things happen is the institutional racism, poverty and marginalisation that blight so many communities.
Those involved are among the most alienated. They come from broken homes and families afflicted by unemployment, industrial injuries, illness, incarceration and drug addiction.
Every once in a while something, invariably an act of police brutality, acts as a tipping point and the underlying tension explodes into an uprising.
A generation later we are witnessing a fresh upsurge in anger. The events in Ferguson, New York, Baltimore and elsewhere are reminders of how little has changed. This time around, though there have been riots there are also glimpses of a more constructive collective struggle.
All Involved is grim, gritty but gripping stuff which does not make for comfortable reading. Ryan Gattis shines a light on some of the darker recesses of our inner cities.
It is to be hoped that Black Lives Matter develops into a movement that offers a beacon for the future.