Race relations and social upheaval permeate this frenetic novel set amid the 1992 trial of Los Angeles police officers accused of beating motorist Rodney King.
Baldwin parlays his real-life experiences teaching Southern Californian inner-city high-school students into his thorny, complicated, character-driven debut that follows a group of interconnected middle-class denizens through the urban underbelly of L.A. It’s 1992 and the crackle of gunfire is the norm to a crime-ridden area anxiously awaiting the verdict in the King trial. Besides white, ex-vice cop Michael Macetti, also struggling among the gangbangers and thieving thugs is local schoolteacher Olivia who is frustrated with her laid-off, drug-running husband Gunther, while Marcetti’s daughter, Sonja, an artistic high school senior, is torn between her interracial love affair with Anwar, Gunther’s straight-A son, and her affection for Bobby, the jock she left behind in La Jolla. Tensions mount when Kesha, a young teen, becomes the victim of a drive-by shooting at a local crack house run by the Crips gang that has been incrementally encroaching on Macetti’s neighborhood, making Gunther, a member of rival gang the Bloods, more vigilant about reclaiming his turf. Meanwhile, Sonia’s classmate Ishmael forms a deadly allegiance to Crips leader Rayhab, who is bent on revenge-killing Macetti. In Baldwin’s dark world of urban decay, the male characters tend to deliver the terse language, threats and violence while their female counterparts offer support and hope, yet exasperatingly spin in place. Macetti struggles to become the hero the story desperately needs, but his efforts are quickly trumped by a surfeit of menacing gang activity. Nevertheless, Baldwin’s bleak melodrama plods on, becoming hinged on the King verdict. When the verdict finally arrives, it throws the entire city into a tailspin of riots, looting, murder and uncontrollable mayhem, further exacerbating racial tensions and general desperation, which, depending on the reader, will either titillate or exhaust. Baldwin has assembled an edgy cast of characters that’s ambitiously broad and, with a few exceptions, richly realized. As slangy dialogue intensifies the relentlessly grim and aggressive plot, Baldwin thankfully allows for a few slivers of hope, such as Olivia’s defining sentiment to her friends early on that “faith is about all we’ve got.”
Overworked, but worth a read for its rough, raw and luridly realistic portrayal of inner-city strife.