The 1965 Watts riots become the backdrop for one man’s journey through a long night of terror, wonder—and semiotic inquiry.
Americo Monk sees himself as “kind of an amateur urbanologist,” an aficionado of artistic vandalism (aka graffiti), and an underground researcher into the myriad street gangs which declare whole sections of Los Angeles as their armed camp. On the evening of Aug. 11, 1965, when white police make a traffic stop in the streets of predominantly black Watts that sets off a powder keg of pent-up resentments, Monk had been roaming nearby, scribbling random arcana into the notebook that’s never left his side. Now he’s been swept up in the fiery chaos of the city’s worst race riot, far from the home he’s made with his pregnant girlfriend, Karmann Ghia, near an abandoned cargo depot along Los Angeles Harbor. So begins Monk’s rowdy, near-hallucinatory search for a way back “south, toward the harbor.” Throughout Monk’s odyssey, he’s buffeted and bounced through a series of heart-stopping perils and exotic diversions. Besides the inevitable hassles with LAPD detectives, two of whom covet Monk’s notebook for its gang-related info, the people Monk encounters along the way include a phlegmatic “mosquito abatement” officer going about his business in the back alleys, short-tempered Chinese gangsters who’ve waged bloody all-out war over fortune cookies, a Nation of Islam contingent led by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad himself, and even the notorious Tokyo Rose as she’s lugging a bag of jazz LPs to her house. As Monk dodges and weaves his way through the festering, sweltering maelstrom, Karmann, depicted as a kind of Penelope to Monk’s Odysseus, tries to keep some kind of order during an unruly rent party. In his debut novel, Lombardo, who flashes impressive stylistic chops throughout, seems to be aiming for his own jazz-inflected version of a Joycean “night town” ramble infused with history, urban legend, dark comedy, and mythological tropes. Sometimes he gets carried away, though. If, for instance, Edward R. Murrow was really doing a CBS newscast on TV three months after he died and four years after he quit the network, then the novel really is a hallucination trumping actual history.
Maybe Lombardo’s hip-shooting imagery is part of the point he’s making: history as a nightmare from which these characters are trying to awake. And nothing in a nightmare is supposed to make sense.