Wednesday, December 27, 2006

L.A. Rex by Will Beall

L.A. doesn't forget its tragedies. It just ignores them.

I found myself thinking that after finishing L.A. Rex by Will Beall the other night. The story is about LAPD rookie Ben Halloran, who has been teamed up with veteran Miguel Marquez in Los Angeles' ugly 77th Street Division, and Halloran's efforts to hide his real self from his hard as nails partner.

It's convoluted and dark. Digs around the sewers of gangland culture and police brutality. I've heard a lot of comparisons to Ellroy, but I don't think they really do justice to the book. Believe it or not, I'm not a big Ellroy fan. His prose always feels flat to me, and, much as his interweaving of history and fiction is amazingly well done, I just don't much like his books. I much preferred L.A. Rex to L.A. Confidential, for example.

The book is brutal and vividly realized, Beall's experiences as an LAPD officer in the 77th coloring the book with a thick coat of harsh reality. Overall, L.A. Rex is one of my favorite books this year. It captures a part of Los Angeles that I'm happy to say I know largely only through secondhand accounts.

My wife used to be a surgical tech at King Drew Medical in their trauma ward in the early '90's pulling bullets out of boys and girls whose whole lives have been nothing but the wrong place and wrong time. It's interesting to hear what essentially amount to the same stories from the other side of the fence. Beall pulls in a visceral sense of what the streets are like. Amazingly, he does it with a humanity that is absent from similar books, like Gary Phillips' "Bangers", and manages not to demonize even the most fucked up characters.

It's this sense of humanity that gives it a feeling of hopefulness. The good guys are not good, but they're bad in the way they need to be bad. It's a shade of gray that coalesces in one scene where Marquez explains to his rookie partner that you can wear a badge for fifteen years, but you're not a cop until you break the law.

Though in reviews, some of the prose has been criticized as over the top, I personally loved the voice. It's rich and Beall has a knack for description that brings a beautiful lyricism and violent brutality together on the page. Yes, there are a few moments where the dialog feels a bit much, but overall it works.

I think the book's greatest strength is its non-linear pacing. Beall moves the reader back and forth through time revealing just enough of the characters to let you know what's happening, but not insulting your intelligence by feeling as though he has to throw it all out onto the page before he's damn good and ready. It works up to a point.

Where it started to break down for me is after a scene in which a pregnant woman is shot by an officer, causing the inevitable community backlash. From that point on the book feels rushed, as though Beall were trying to make a cinematic climax worthy of Bruckheimer, and cramming it into too small a space.

Without giving anything away, I first thought some of the events from that point on felt far fetched and over the top.

And then I remembered the Northridge Quake in '94, the riots in '92.

If you don't believe things can go over the top and straight to shit in a hurry in this town, read the transcript of the radio traffic of the North Hollywood shootout in '97.

And that's what I mean by L.A. ignores its tragedies. We don't forget about them. They're very real and very present. But like an alcoholic with a day job, the city has to put it all aside in order to function. The place is full of little nightmares and an odd sense of hopefulness, that it can still pull itself together. It can quit anytime. Really.

If nothing else, L.A. Rex captures that singular essence, that contradiction of Los Angeles and makes you take a long, hard look at it.

1 comment:

David said...

Hmm. LA Rex, eh? I'll have to check that one out.

Years ago, I was hanging out with Cornell Wilde, Jr., who was talking about how he had been approached by various producer types about starring in a remake of "The Naked Prey," only set in present day L.A. Wilde said that he had gone so far as to research the project by hanging out with cops from the 77th and "Shootin' Newton." Most of whom, when they heard about the core plot, drew themselves up, adjusted their well-worn gunbelts and snorted "Hell yeah! I could totally make it back. Just skin out some cluckhead and walk back inside a junkie-skin coat."

The concept is one that had apparently played a large part in their daydreams and musings over the years ... what would it be like to be wearing the hated blue uni on the Day of Wrath? How would they get back to The Fort?

Any cop you talk to has at least three contingency plans at all times as to how to get back to where there are large stores of guns & ammo and fellow officers ... and how, if things look like they're really going to get a work-out, to get out of L.A. entirely.


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