Webs of Desire and Power
By Rob LathamSeptember 18, 2017
Safe by Ryan Gattis
Gattis has followed up this small masterpiece with Safe, a more modestly purposed but equally intense character study disguised as a crime caper story. The set-up is fairly standard: protagonist takes a wrong turn, crosses a criminal gang, and pays the price. What makes the story stand out are the changes Gattis rings on this clichéd scenario. Our hero’s impulse for ripping off the crooks is not plain greed, and the gang member who hunts him down is not driven by simple revenge: both have complex motives with deep roots in family life and community values. Unlike many noir writers, Gattis doesn’t depict pure outcasts, lone and isolated; rather, he shows the imbrication of even the most deracinated individuals in ineluctable social webs of desire and power.
Safe’s protagonist and antagonist, whose respective stories are told in overlapping sequences of first-person narration, are in many ways mirror images of one another. Both grew up in Lynwood, both ran with gangs in their youth, both are disgusted with the violence they’ve witnessed and committed, both are pushing 40 and finding their life chances narrowing, both yearn for a freedom that is at once alluring and horribly perilous. Each eerily understands the other long before they meet, before their interweaving narratives culminate in the inevitable confrontation only one of them will survive.
While it’s clear that Gattis wants readers to appreciate these parallels, he has perhaps made the two characters’ voices — with their brooding introspection and troubled rumblings of conscience — too uncannily similar. At times, especially as the shifts in perspective grow more frequent, it’s hard to remember who is speaking. Still, there’s no question that Ricky Mendoza, Jr. (a.k.a. “Ghost”), a locksmith who works undercover as a safecracker for the DEA, and Rudy Reyes (a.k.a. “Glasses”), a lieutenant in a drug cartel who is also a covert DEA informant, are among the more compelling characters in recent crime fiction. We are drawn deep into their respective stories, even as Ricky and Rudy come to realize that
stories are worse than bullets sometimes, because bullets can pass through you or be taken out but stories can’t. Stories stick. Good stories don’t just do that, though, they can rearrange you inside. There’s no getting them out.
The novel begins when Ricky steps outside the settled story of his life and tries to rewrite it. Prompted by the sudden recurrence of a long-dormant cancer, as well as the burning memory of a teenage love lost to the disease, he throws away over a decade of routine when he skims cash from a safe in a drug dealer’s house that’s been raided by the DEA. This decision leads to a windfall, as the safe is packed with protection money Rudy’s gang has left specifically for the DEA to find. But it also leads to a series of desperate decisions and winnowed options that culminate in tragedy.
As noted, both Ricky’s and Rudy’s motives run deeper than they would in the typical crime thriller. Ricky steals the money not to fund a last fling before dying but to pay off the underwater mortgages of lower-middle-class people brutalized by the Great Recession (the story is set in September 2008, when the rickety system of “mortgage-backed securities” and “collateralized debt obligations” had really begun to crater). For his part, Rudy is secretly aiding the DEA in the hope of getting his investments unfrozen so he can pull up stakes and leave the gang. Yet, despite his urge to escape the criminal life, Rudy must hunt down Ricky for restitution and reprisal in order to prove his loyalty to the cartel. The result is a risky game of cat and mouse conducted amid the shuttered shops and sun-wasted streets of Skid Row and South Central.
Like All Involved, Safe is very much a Los Angeles novel. Both stories are set at historical moments when downtrodden communities, confronted with systemic injustice, rebel. The insurgency in Safe is more modest and private than in All Involved: facing economic apocalypse, no one loots or riots, but everyone agrees there is “no shame for stealing” when it means the likes of “Bank of America […] [,] Merrill Lynch and AIG” will “get what they deserve.” Even the gang Ricky rips off to finance his populist escapade grudgingly admires his audacity (a “ghetto Robin Hood,” Rudy calls him).
For L.A. natives, Gattis’s evocation of the city’s physical and social geography is at once familiar and deeply strange, especially as refracted through the eyes of Ricky, a rehabbed heroin addict whose former haunts both beckon and terrify. Downtown Los Angeles pre-gentrification, before gritty Pete’s Café became the swanky Ledlow Swan, “has a special type of crazy.” In one striking scene, Ricky feels its lowlife undertow pulling like a “current […] that’s too strong for me […] [E]verything down that slope of Fifth Street is a river, and I can’t go down there because I won’t come back up.” He only shakes the streets’ magnetism by recalling a sordid scene he stumbled on in a Porta Potty at a construction site, after “the Hippodrome [Theater] got itself knocked down in the eighties […] I opened the door on a passed-out junkie getting head with a needle stuck in his arm.” For 16 years, Ricky has never skipped his Narcotics Anonymous meetings in St. James Episcopal Church in Koreatown, where “you learn everything you ever needed to know about human weakness,” especially your own.
The world Rudy and his criminal crew inhabit is depicted with equal vividness and precision. Sandwiched between Watts and Compton, Lynwood is a predominantly Latino neighborhood struggling upward from the crack wars of the ’80s and ’90s, yet still pulsing with black-market energies. (Gattis’s intimate knowledge of these environs derives from the extensive research he did while writing All Involved, as well as his community activism with street-art crews and arts nonprofits. He discussed this background in an engaging 2016 interview for LARB’s Radio Hour.) The suburban safe houses where wannabe gangsters guard the crew’s stash while lounging on the couch with their girlfriends are evoked in all their cookie-cutter anonymity. Though the scourge of drive-by shootings has abated, the streets still hum with jeopardy: the locals all know when to look down and walk the other way.
Yet on the margins of danger, there is a vibrant life. Briefly holed up with Blanco, a youthful partner in crime, in his tiny apartment, Ricky is served a sizzling plate of “chicken thighs in mole amarillo […], loaded up with green beans and potatoes,” by Blanco’s wife, a cinnamon-haired beauty who eyes him suspiciously, knowing he’s “reminding Blanco about what’s bad inside him, not about what’s good.” Meanwhile, Rudy’s drug-lord boss, Rooster, lives the life of a comfortable paterfamilias, with a two-story house, a big screen TV tuned to the Dodgers, and a pampered hearing-impaired daughter whose ASL skills have been mined by the gang for its signal system. For someone like Rooster, Lynwood’s “not like it used to be, growing up in the same eighteen blocks and never going anywhere. Now the city’s wider, and if you got the money, it’ll give you whatever you want” — a slick Chrysler 300, steak dinners at Pacific Dining Car. The delicacy and acuity of Gattis’s social observations make Safe a highly satisfying read.
That said, the book does have some weaknesses. Chief among these is a tendency to introspection that at times verges on navel-gazing: the thread of plot can be lost for pages as Ricky or Rudy slips into one of their characteristic — and growingly interchangeable — reveries. For Ricky, these center on memories of his first and only love, Rose, a nervy punk-rocker whose death sent him into a decades-long spiral of depression and mourning, his anguish at once fed and assuaged by ceaseless replayings of a mix-tape she curated, titled “Fuck Dying,” on which Bad Religion, X, and the Vandals scream into the void. This subplot is a bit too precious: I could have lived without the track-list Gattis includes as an epigraph, which functions as the novel’s soundtrack, not to mention hipster-cred passages such as this: “[P]unk spoke my language without me even knowing it. Punk didn’t come from where I came from, but it knew how mad I was before I even did.” It’s also physically impossible that this humble cassette could have survived 16 years of abuse in automobile tape decks without turning into plastic spaghetti. The story’s time span is only five days, and Ricky must listen to it half a dozen times.
The book also features a few overwritten passages that suggest Gattis doesn’t fully trust his readers to “get it” the first time. The author is certainly capable of penning fiercely telegraphic hard-boiled prose, as witness the linked novellas about L.A. yakuzas he wrote for Black Hill Press, collectively titled The Big Drop (2013), which are as emotionally terse as haikus. In Safe, however, Gattis isn’t content to say that one character smirked grimly at another after a deal gone bad; instead, we are given an awkward, paragraph-long play-by-play of the tortuous implications of this glance for both parties, including a range of potential outcomes. “All that in a look,” Ricky observes. A number of such meaning-laden looks are minutely scrutinized in the novel. These are taciturn characters, granted, but surely there are more succinct ways to convey complex social signaling.
Despite its occasional longueurs, Safe is an intense and gripping novel. As Ricky’s and Rudy’s stories start to come together and fuse, the suspense is palpable, and the multiple meanings of the book’s title resonate. Musing on his long-suffering wife, who has stuck by him despite the hazards of his occupation, Rudy thinks: “She could’ve had a normal life if she wanted, a husband that didn’t have a messed-up eye and a messed-up fade and worked at the DMV or something, you know? Somebody safe.” Meanwhile, Ricky has come to the hard-won realization that “safety was for other people […] Not us. Never us. All we got handed was risk and running.” The pursuit ends, unforgettably, at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro, looking out at Terminal Island. For all our running, Gattis suggests, we can never escape the prisons we have made for ourselves.
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