After the mobster Sonny Franzese got out of federal prison for the last time—at the age of 100—he told an interviewer that he’d never snitched and never hurt anyone who was innocent. For this, Franzese spent about 40 years of his life, on and off, behind bars. Still, upon his death at 103, the obituaries were hagiographic, more likely to lead with his Hollywood friendships than with his prodigious body count. (Some estimates reached 60.) The ultimate reward for an OG? To be found honorable in death. To be respected by the very people who feared your existence.
What a trade.
I couldn’t help remembering Franzese as I read Ryan Gattis’s fourth novel, The System. Told from thirteen alternating points of view and taking place from the end of 1993 through the beginning of 1994, The System focuses on a shooting in Lynwood—a gang-ridden community in South Los Angeles—and its aftermath: both the byzantine legal variety and the complicated personal horror.
This is no front-page assassination. It might not even make the paper at all, because no one dies. There’s no Hollywood allure. It’s hardly even a whodunit, since everyone knows that Scrappy, a gang-affiliated dealer with ties throughout the prison system, has been targeted by Wizard, a Sureño shooter who is “Lynwood-famous.”
The why of the shooting hardly matters either. Scrappy did something. The wrong people wanted her dead. That’s enough.
The problem is there’s a witness: an addict named Augie, who is the only semi-decent human on the block. He ties off Scrappy’s wound with a tourniquet, saving her life…and then escapes with her drugs and the gun Wizard and his accomplice intentionally dropped at the scene.
Augie’s choice offers a moment of surprising empathy crossed with pitiless realism. It’s a mix that permeates The System. For every instance of tenderness, there’s the parallax view—particularly after Phillip Petrillo, Augie’s crooked parole officer, learns of his charge’s involvement at the scene. It’s not enough to arrest Wizard; Petrillo wants to take down one of Wizard’s buddies, Dreamer, for reasons both coincidental—Petrillo is borderline stalking Dreamer’s girlfriend, Angela—and entirely believable. Everyone is locked in the same closed ecosystem, a prison on the streets, where whom or what you covet is hardly ruled by reason. Romeo and Juliet had it easier. The Montagues didn’t have automatic weapons.
The novel is narrated in a tag-team fashion, each character handing off to another, giving a kaleidoscopic coherence to the chaos, frenzy, and odd alliances of the streets. Everyone relates as a kind of family—either by genetics or by choice—in the gangs, the government, the police force. At the same time, on the streets, stay low, unless you want to get hurt. Physically. Emotionally. Existentially.
It’s a code that Dreamer, a gangster on the come up, understands:
I been punched and kicked every way you can be. I been knifed a few times. Been knocked out with a bat to the ear. Broke an arm from a tire iron. One fucker even slung a chain at me once and took one of my fingernails out with it. And I never showed any of those fools that they hurt me.
Nah. You do that? That’s you letting them win twice.
And besides, that’s not how this world works.
Yet Dreamer has never been so much as detained…until Petrillo plants the gun Augie stole in his belongings. And just like that, the engine of the criminal justice system cranks to life. Gattis highlights the lawyers, the cops, the mountains of paper. He takes us inside the county jail, where Dreamer and Wizard fight for standing and influence. He takes us back to the streets, where Wizard’s associates get to work, spoiling whatever evidence they can, threatening witnesses, uncovering how Dreamer was set up.
The effect is a detective novel in reverse—bad guys pounding the pavement, shaking loose information, figuring out how to find the guilty party. Every deposition, every filing, every meeting with a client feels gritty and potentially criminal.
Everyone in The System is running a game. There’s not a hero to be found.
It should be startling.
Thirty years after the period of this novel, we simply know too much. That’s not to say The System suffers. Gattis, rather, has drawn a detailed map of the ills that continue to plague Los Angeles. Rampant homelessness. Distrust of law enforcement. Widespread drug abuse. A criminal justice system in deep need of reform. And, finally, the ease with which young men commit acts of profound violence in the name of streets they don’t even own.
No one escapes undamaged in Gattis’s telling, particularly not the gangsters—who still believe in Franzese’s skewed sense of the nobility of common killers—and not the system itself. This is a novel of profound weight and terrible, enduring sadness—not unlike Los Angeles itself.