This novel, recommended by a friend, complicates what we might think we understand about race politics in Los Angeles. It tells a riveting story in an intriguing way.
Nina Revoyr’s second novel, Southland (348 pages, Akashic Books, $15.95), is narrated by Jackie Ishida, a lesbian law student, who has grown up in suburban Los Angeles and is pulled into the past when her beloved Japanese grandfather dies. After his death, she talks to her aunt, and she discovers that her grandfather had bequeathed his corner market in the Crenshaw District—long since sold and even boarded up—to a certain black kid who has worked with him. When Jackie starts to explore this history—her aunt has asked her to find the kid, Curtis Martindale--she finds herself more and more intrigued. Why did old Frank Sakai leave the store, or the $38,000 in proceeds from selling it, to this young African American?
As she begins her exploration, Jackie meets Lanier, a young black man who works in a social service center in the neighborhood of the store. Lanier does wonderful things for the kids in the neighborhood, and he knows some of the history that Jackie is pursuing. She very quickly learns that Curtis is one of four black kids who were left to die in the store’s freezer during the turbulence of the Watts Riots in 1965.
Needless to say, this complicates matters considerably. Lanier thinks he knows the perpetrator, a bigoted Irish cop who seemed to have it out for all the black kids in the neighborhood. When they talk to an African American policeman in hopes to find out more about the case, they find that the doors of inquiry are slammed in their faces.
That doesn’t stop them, though, from exploring further. By following connections and even vague leads, they discover a lot about the boys who were killed and about Curtis especially. While all this is transpiring, Jackie is also discovering a lot about her roots. She did not really know the extent of her grandfather’s commitment to that store in the Crenshaw, nor did she know what a family-oriented mixed race neighborhood it had once been.
Jackie is also confronting the limitations of her relationship with Laura, the white woman on the mayor’s staff, with whom she has been involved for some years. Her work on the Curtis Martindale case makes her more political, political in ways that Laura does not understand, and Jackie finds herself drawing closer to her Japanese-American law school buddy, Rebecca. At first, Jackie feels no attraction to Rebecca because she is too much like herself; but as her investigations teach her a new appreciation of her family’s history, it also draws her closer to someone like Rebecca, who understands the complexity she is facing.
What Jackie discovers is truly complicated, and Revoyr unpeels the story layer by layer, moving back and forth between 1965 and 1994 (the time in which the story is set) and several points in between. Jackie learns both that the obvious villains are not always as bad as they seem and that intra-racial conflict can be as intense as any other kinds of violence.
She also learns something about the intimacy of relations between Japanese Americans and African Americans in the Crenshaw District in the 1960’s. The ending of the novel is not entirely surprising, but then I don’t think Revoyr means it to be. Instead, it is compelling in ways that this remarkable novel has led us to expect.
Get it at Powell's, Vroman's, or Amazon.