Ryan Gattis came to prominence with his 2015 novel All Involved, an exploration of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots from a range of points of view. Gattis returns to that time in his latest novel The System, set a year later and with a different angle. As Gattis makes clear in the opening, his intention is to explore the American justice system from the crime through arrest, detention and the court system. Again, he does this through a range of points of view. But this is more than just an exploration of that system, it is a meditation on its self-perpetuating nature, how greater adherence to “the system” makes the system worse.
Even before the prologue, Gattis sets out his intent – to explore a single crime – “those accused of it, those who witnessed it, the law enforcement who investigated it, the lawyers who prosecuted and defended it and those left behind on the outside”. It is Los Angeles 1993, a year in which, again as Gattis sets out, 15% of the US jail population were housed in California. And power has shifted to the point where prison gangs were able to direct activity on the streets. The crime that forms the centre of this narrative is an example of this activity. A small time drug dealer is shot by members of a rival gang, on orders from high ranking members in jail. The shooting is witnessed by Augie, a drug addict looking to score, who also takes the gun which was dropped the scene. Augie’s parole officer Petrillo, finds the gun, hears the story and realises that if he plants the gun he can use it not only to arrest the shooter, known as Wizard, but can also frame his housemate Jacob Safulu, known as Dreamer. Petrillo has personal reasons for wanting to frame Dreamer as he has plans to make a move on Dreamer’s teenage girlfriend (and Wizard’s sister), Angela. Soon Dreamer and Wizard are in prison and the wheels of justice are turning.
Through the rest of the book, and through a range of other characters, including the prosecutor and Dreamer’s defence attorney (who used to work as a prosecutor), Gattis exposes the US justice system. Dreamer, who has never been to prison before, relies on Wizard to protect him and quickly adjusts to the attitude needed to survive life on the inside. Meanwhile on the outside, their friend Jeovanni Matta, known as Little, who has kept himself out of gang business finds himself coming into his own as a gang leader as he tries to find out who the police informant is and how the gun ended up in Dreamer’s bedroom.
The System is forensic in its exploration of the issues but what it also shows is no matter how impartial everyone pretends to be, the whole show is running on personal agendas. Petrillo is using the situation to date Angela, prosecutor Kristina Mirkovich used to be married to one of the arresting police officers and desperately wants to win her first big gang case, Dreamer’s defence attorney Nick Park left the DA’s office after Mirkovich told him she would not date a colleague but then would not date him anyway so wants to take her down. Meanwhile, in prison, Wizard is cementing his reputation and Dreamer is learning to fight to survive:
This jail shit is a hundred times crazier than the streets. It’s like all the rough blocks in every bad hood got all the bad dudes shook out of them and they landed here. All squashed together in tiny spaces. That shit is never going to go good. It’s how I’ve been learning about people. Seeing them. How they really are when you bust the human part of them down to nothing and they’re just about doing whatever to survive…
Gattis effectively uses his chorus of voices to move the reader through the justice system. From crime, to arrest, to arraignment, to the trial and beyond. Casting a keen eye on the mechanics of the system without ever losing sight of the humans who sit behind it. And it is that human element which ensures that nothing is black and white, and that no matter how impartial the system purports to be, there will always be cracks. And while the action is set almost thirty years ago, there is no reason to think the situation has improved in any way since then. If anything it is likely to be worse.