All Involved by Ryan Gatiss

Inner city violence and graffiti is not my usual chosen reading matter so it was with a certain amount of trepidation that I started reading All Involved.

But my god. By the middle of the first chapter, it was like a terrier had got me round the neck and wouldn’t let me go. This book shook me and repulsed me, fascinated and entranced me. It was unputdownable in a terrible, graphic, violent way.

Ryan Gattis has written the book entirely in the first person, inhabiting each different character with skill and integrity. This means that with each new chapter the reader is taken inside the head of these scared, shut down, violent individuals,  exposing us to their innermost thoughts and giving us a real chance to understand why & how the live the life of a gang member.

We start with Ernesto, a boy who isn’t all involved and this means he lives, works and breathes LA, but isn’t part of a gang. He’s a kid with a dream who’s trying to get out and do some good on the way, but whose time is brutally cut short by the very violence he tried so hard to stay away from.

After Ernesto is his sister, Payasa, who is all involved, learning the trade under the tutelage of Big Fate, who, being the chief man of this Latino crew is all involved and so on, until the story reaches a traumatic and inevitable conclusion.

We learn each of the characters background, and there is a continuing theme of childhood neglect and brutality. Most of these kids didn’t stand a chance of not being in a gang. A lot of them grew up in households where family members were already all involved. Some of them seek the gang leaders out, because of the perceived glamour being in a gang offers. This is the LA which is terrifyingly real and which the kids whose story we are following see as being the only true LA.

Los Angeles as a city, which for a Londoner like me (who has never been and I have to say, has never had any desire to go) is bought alive in this book, in a vivid and geographical way. Being part of a gang, and the territorial warfare that stems from these gangs is something which we are getting to grips with in London now, but which has been going on in LA for nearly 50 years.

Of course we all know that these kids who join gangs do so because they offer them a chance of being part of something, like a family, which they may never have had before. Gangs offer them security, friends, comfort, but also drugs, guns and sex. And where this book hits the mark for me is that it doesn’t shy away from the truth of that.

It may be visceral reading but the violence feels relevant, not voyeuristic. It’s a hard read, because it all seems such a waste, but I felt that one of the key points the author was making by writing this book, is that for the people living in this way, it is life or death. Rightly or wrongly, the factor of territory is relevant to them and the drug deals generate the money they need to provide the gunpower to be used against enemy gangs who could threaten their territory and their family at any time.

The fact that the author portrays the police to be the biggest, most dangerous gang there is, is an interesting point. The way they operate and deal with the gang members and the brutal lessons they dish out, raises questions about the circular nature of that lifestyle. Maybe if the police treated the gangbangers differently, the gangbangers wouldn’t feel the need to arm themselves and operate under military laws and the situation would improve?

Ryan Gatiss does rail against the waste of life, clearly demonstrated in Ernesto’s story right in the beginning, but he also demonstrates that when you live in this environment, there are winners and losers. And as in any element of life, no-one wants to be on the losing team.

A tragic, eye opening novel written with skill and poise, this book is worth the nightmares.

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