All Involved, Ryan Gattis’s breakout novel about the LA riots of 1992, was an absolute blast. Ballsy, vivid and immersive, it took various voices from the gangs, from families left behind and the thin blue line, joining them in a rousing cacophony that made up a frightening mosaic of a hot, heady, violent time.
In Safe, he returns to more recent history, choosing the 2008 financial crisis to chart a game of cat-and-mouse between Ghost, a drug-addict turned federal safe-cracker (who has stolen a large amount of money to fund the father of his dead lover’s sinking property business) and Glasses, the gang member tasked with getting the money back.
There are two problems with this. A Fault in Our Stars back story has been bolted on over Ghost’s tale — he himself is also dying of cancer. This doesn’t always feel like comfortable territory for Gattis, who is absolutely brilliant on the brutality of life on the edge; he writes good violence and is terrific on masculinity and hard choices. But the softer sentiments here are conveyed via old cassette tapes, and are never quite convincing; the female characters are, yawn, wafer-thin wisecracking angels.
There’s a second problem you wouldn’t expect: All Involved was told through 17 polyphonous voices, and for the main part the separate characters stayed distinct and easily identifiable — not unlike Max Brook’s excellent World War Z. Here there are only two narrators, Ghost and Glasses — their names are similar, and their interior monologues are almost identical. While this is presumably done on purpose, you can find yourself flicking back and forward to remember who’s talking.
But when they finally meet, it’s all change. In the final third — the last heist — everything steps up a gear and all of Gattis’s pulse-racing talents come to the fore. It’s tense, exciting, beautifully paced and you’ll be unable to stop reading. There are no twists; it’s just tremendously well done, and absolutely pays off its slightly fuzzy set-up.
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