There you are, no highly publicised books about gangs and the dispossessed for ages and then two come along at the same time! Of course, if I was a better reader I would be able to take each book in isolation, but sadly, that’s not how my brain works. I read, loved and raved about ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ over the summer. Months later, and it’s still with me, a constant mental companion reminding me of how great contemporary literature can be. This means that I was unable to read ‘All Involved’ with the fresh eyes I would have brought to the book last spring. Reviews are always subjective, but it’s only fair to state my prejudices from the start.
The similarities in structure between the two books makes my job even harder. Both are narrated through a variety of first person voices, each telling their own version of a section of events. These characters come from different backgrounds (though gang members form the majority) and this affects their voices, vocabulary and world-view. Both novels also make statements about the complexity of gang violence and lawlessness. Gattis is writing about the 1992 LA riots, he makes the case that such events punctuate the history of the city, the results of deep and underlying tensions and injustice. Jones tackles Jamaica, another place with a simplistic public image that bears little comparison to the complexity of its infrastructure, culture and population.
I’m going to try to limit myself to one last comparison here, because though the style and themes may be similar, the ambitions of the two novels are strikingly different. As mentioned in the above paragraph, Gattis is writing about a city, in fact, he deals almost entirely with the poorer areas of LA, those not usually in the public eye. This is an honourable agenda and it is not fair to compare it to Jones whose ‘Brief History’ is a novel that goes far beyond the boundaries of Kingston, Jamaica, exploring its place in the global community of crime, law and competing ideologies. Despite the title, ‘All Involved’ does not extend much further than specific gang territory. It is claustrophobic rather than global, and does not gain from comparisons to the more ambitious novel.
‘All Involved’ is at it’s best when focusing on the small. When characters speak for themsevles rather than as the voice-pieces of the city they are are poweful and believable creations. The complex role of gender, for example, is explored extremely well through a female gang member as well as less ‘involved’ neighbours of the main action. The tight-knit structure also allows for stylish use of dramatic irony; the reader is generally one step ahead of key narrators because of a well-managed reveal of information.
Dealing largely with the Latino community ‘All Involved’ is a welcome introduction to a population I haven’t met in fiction before. Gattis writes with an excellent ear for dialogue and his extensive research is evident in the characters’ highly believable inner monologues. If I didn’t love the book more, it was because of my own unhelpful but inevitable basis for comparison. If you read ‘All Involved’ after a James Elroy novel (a far more appropriate companion author) you are unlikely to be disappointed. Gattis has taken a chaotic moment in the sprawling history of a city and given it heart and coherence. It’s a book to read if you like your underbelly of society hard-boiled and your gangsters driven by fear. But I still think you should read ‘A Brief History’ first.
Also, as a side issue. Be careful when picking up this book. It looks strikingly similar to another 2015 novel of the American city: ‘You Don’t Have to Live Like This’. Markovitz’s Detroit-set book is also on my to-read list. If anyone knows how it compares to ‘All Involved’ I’d love to find out!
I received my copy of ‘All Involved’ from the publisher via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.