‘Only about forty years ago, back in the twenties or so, this city was like most other cities, still filled with trees and wild places… Then the white folks come and there’s this big land grab. In just a few years, most of the trees and fields are gone as the clapboard houses spread. But there’s something else going on here. Black folks gathered in these wild refuges. The gardens, the wall of woods, the tangled arbors were natural dens where they could talk, sing, love, dream, read forbidden books, slipping away from a master’s bonds only for an hour or two. So white folks bulldozed all these sanctuaries away, only goddamn weedy lots left. Now these lots take on a life of their own. Each year they morph more and more into a new kind of jungle, an urban jungle, a ghetto jungle, man…’
In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the weather – the sweltering heat on one particular day in Brooklyn – plays a crucial role in bringing events to a boil. For much of the film, all that really happens is that every character – antagonist, protagonist, black, white, young and old – is cooked under the midday sun. A crucial precursor then to the racial touchpaper being lit, was the frying of every mind and body involved.
In Graffiti Palace, the debut novel by A.G. Lombardo, the same midsummer pressure cooker is in place. However, Lombardo is retelling the story of a real event – the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, whereupon the arrest of a black man kicked off six days of rioting. And the tagline does a brilliant job not only of setting the scene, but also explaining the book’s raison d’être: ‘A novel for anyone who can’t quite believe they’re still protesting this shit.’ Thus an implied ambition here is ‘projection’.
In this context, therefore – using a portrait of the past to say something substantial about the here & now – the novel gets off to a bad start. In the first chapter, which introduces the main character in absentia, i.e. through his lover and friends, the emphasis on everyone’s cool, is distracting. Man or woman, loser, player or militant, there is filmic importance given to underscoring just how goddamn ‘now’ they all are. And from this reviewer’s distance (not Angeleno, not American, not black, not white), characters named Cooky, Slim-Bone and Lil’ Davey do not lend themselves to worthwhile ‘projection’. Worse still, the author’s hand is at times visible, in dialogue that is too obviously an orientation device:
“You see, it’s only been four generations since Lincoln freed the slaves … Our future’s still a slave’s future. … We leave our wives, girlfriends, ‘n babies, ‘cause back in the old days the boss man’d break us families up and sell us down the river.”
The story then unfolds with the protagonist, a graffiti expert out documenting gang insignia, getting caught up in rioting that spreads throughout the city following the arrest. All our hero wants is to avoid trouble and get home to his pregnant partner, however in trying to achieve that, fate blows him into the path of one drama after another – and he (we) get a street-level view of the kaleidoscope that made up Los Angeles in 1965: the Nation of Islam, Mexican gangs, the Chinese, those pining for White Power. It’s a solid idea, rich with potential. And Lombardo is best when describing those streets, as seen through different eyes (the excerpt up top is taken from a particularly memorable exchange with a pest controller).
But whilst Lombardo is excellent in helping the stranger feel the pulse of his city, some of the human exchanges lack nuance – are two-dimensional, even cartoon-like. Again, a filmic sensibility prevails, wherein Lombardo feels it sufficient to sketch characters who walk / talk as if straight off some assembly line. The scene where he meets Elijah Muhammad, founder of the Nation of Islam, is particularly ridiculous. One moment he is hurried into an open door by men ‘…in ebony suits and bow ties’, and the next he is dining with one of Muhammad’s consorts: ‘…he won’t stop until you’ve joined the Nation, he sees you as a possible caliph, a kind of successor, perhaps.’
Any Cop?: Graffiti Palace re-opens a piece of history that’s well worth creative insight. And Lombardo’s Odyssey-esque voyage through 1960s Los Angeles over one crazy night, is rich in nostalgia, without becoming syrupy. However, the sometimes primitive delivery dampens the story’s power, despite flashes of superb writing. It’s a typical debut.