A novel of Los Angeles tormented by racial tension and gang violence in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.
Readers who were alive and aware then will remember the news footage from Southern California when, on April 29, 1992, a jury acquitted two police officers of using excessive force—though clearly King, an African-American, had been beaten. Novelist and street artist Gattis (Kung Fu High School, 2005, etc.) takes the rising post-verdict mayhem as backdrop for a series of linked, episodic stories in which Chicano gangsters, Anglo emergency responders, Korean vigilantes and members of just about every other ethnic group in melting-pot LA share the stage. As the book opens, a young food server remarks that he and a fellow worker, arriving at a catering site, “saw smoke, four black towers going up like burning oil wells in Kuwait. Maybe not that big, but big.” The violence soon sweeps young Ernesto up, as it does his co-worker, who bears, among other sobriquets, the resonant nom de guerre Termite. The latter lad aspires to something better, and he can be downright philosophical: “All of us are just some fucked-up little smart kids born in the wrong places….I mean, we’re not all smart. Some of us are just fucked-up or drugged out, but we do get fixated on shit.” Check. Gattis does a good job of rounding out and differentiating the 17 or so major players who figure in his pages, some phony confident and some Hamlet-like in their uncertainty (“we are technically vigilantes, and I don’t know how I feel about that”), and there are lashings of pyrotechnic violence and flowing adrenalin to keep the story moving.
Still, the reader will be forgiven for wondering what the point might be, other than that life is unfair, confusing and often ugly—and for that, we have the film Magnolia. Competent but not especially memorable.