It started with a math problem.
“There were between 8,000 and 10,000 arrests, more than 2,000 people were injured, but only 60 dead?” San Pedro author Ryan Gattis says a bit incredulously one morning over a bean and cheese taco at Guisados’ Boyle Heights location. “That struck me as creative accounting.”
Gattis’ sense that a number of deaths not officially tied to the L.A. Riots were the result of “crimes of opportunity” while LAPD was occupied elsewhere served as the germ for what would become his new novel, All Involved, released earlier this year as the first major work of American fiction to tackle the 1992 riots.
The book — whose title stems from slang for participation in gang activity — is Gattis’ third novel and his first full-length work set in Los Angeles, a thriller taking place over the six tumultuous days of rioting, which still stand as one of the most destructive civic eruptions in American history. In addition to the human casualties, the official tally put property damage at $1 billion.
The novel addresses only tangentially that bigger picture, however, rarely even turning its attention to actual rioters. Instead, most of the action zeroes in tightly on one section of Lynwood, where the death of one innocent victim sets off a cascade of retaliatory violence, rendered from the vantage point of 17 interconnected characters. A New York Times reviewer summed the novel up as “gritty, nerve-racking, sometimes excruciating in its violence and at the same time animated by a bone-deep understanding of its characters’ daily lives.”
But in many ways, it’s less historical fiction than historical context. “L.A. is a city with a riot problem,” Gattis says, referencing the Watts Uprising in 1965, the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots and an 1871 massacre in which the city’s Chinatown neighborhood was brutalized by a white mob. For its harsh depiction of social friction, the book has garnered kudos for an unfortunately contemporary relevance. “All Involved is a perfectly unvarnished portrait of Los Angeles and, more importantly, of America in the present,” emailed Wally Rudolph, actor (Sons of Anarchy, Hawaii 5-0) and Highland Park author of two crime novels, including the forthcoming Mighty Mighty.
Gattis spent 2½ years researching the novel, much of which consisted of personally conducting interviews with ex–gang members, nurses, firefighters and other first responders. (For legal and ethical reasons, he says he told all interviewees upfront, “I do not want to know what you did.”) Getting the facts straight weighed heavily on the writer, but also, he says, “I wanted to get the sensory details right. What did 11,000 fires smell like? What did it sound like? What does it feel like to get stabbed?”
Exploring the ugly fallout of unglamorous violence is a theme running through his work. One of his prior novels, Kung Fu High School, centers on a campus that has descended into open combat; it was partially inspired by the Columbine shooting. Gattis spent many of his formative years in Colorado. The day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire, Gattis says, he watched footage of the unfolding massacre, thinking, “I played soccer on that field.”
But his fascination with the psychology of trauma and survival had been brewing for a while. As part of an air force family, the author grew up believing he’d become a soldier. As a teen, he was involved in an accident that required two facial reconstructive surgeries to repair. Writing became a way to assess the damage. Due to its interiority, “A novel is such a deeply human art form,” he says.
It’s not Gattis’ only creative outlet, however. In 2009, after a college friend made an introduction, Gattis joined the artist collective UGLAR, an acronym for United Group of Los Angeles Residents. Much of UGLAR’s work takes the form of large-scale public murals, but the group also has exhibited at galleries and museums and published a book (The Ulysses Guide to the L.A. River, the title of which originally gave birth to the UGLAR acronym).
The group collaborated with Gattis on the painting that’s featured on the inside flap of All Involved’s hardcover edition. It depicts the intersection of Norton Avenue and Martin Luther King Boulevard during the riots’ final throes. And All Involved nears its end via the perspective of a graffiti writer trying to escape his ravaged neighborhood, a character, Gattis says, who likely would not have existed without UGLAR’s influence.
Then again, the book itself likely wouldn’t have existed. One of Gattis’ first official duties with UGLAR was to run interference with curious members of the public as the muralists worked. Standing on city street corners brought him into contact with a whole new cast of characters. “It was the best education about L.A. I’ve ever gotten,” he says.
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As a reader, Gattis gravitates toward classic crime writers, noir heavyweights such as Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Ross MacDonald, whose hardboiled tales not only defined a genre but also helped define L.A. in the national imagination.
“In so many ways, the outlaw as archetype is more alive in L.A. than anywhere else,” Gattis says, from World War II veterans with undiagnosed PTSD settling here during the era of the Black Dahlia murder through the sordid strain among the '60s new age spirituality and the gang culture that continues up to the present. Not to mention plenty of Chinatown-style civic corruption and “a long and terrifying tradition” of crooked cops. Add to that nearly 300 days a year of agreeable weather.
Wait, what? Sort of like, it was a lovely day to commit a crime?
“That’s a great first line for a book!” Gattis exclaims. “I would definitely read that book.”