Thursday, 1 October 2015

Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA, by Luis J Rodriquez

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought:
Having just read Ryan Gattiss’s All Involved, his novel looking at the 1992 Los Angeles riots through the eyes of 17 members of the largely Chicano community of Lynwood in South Central LA, I thought I should look for something written by a member of that community. I found Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA by Luis J Rodriquez – a former gang member and now the Poet Laureate of LA.

While Gattis’s novel focuses on the 6 days of the riots, Rodriguez’s memoir takes place over more than three decades, and gives a broader view of the social, economic and political pressures that led to the rise of the gang culture and which continues to suck in the young.

I am in no position to compare Gattis’s and Rodriguez’s books in terms their portrayal of Chicano life. If there is a difference that struck me between the two accounts, it is that Gattis focuses on honour and revenge as a driving motive behind much of the violence he depicts, whereas the violence that Rodriguez experiences comes across, more often, as a random outpouring of rage against the poverty and injustice of their lives.

What both books share is the sense of wasted talent. Over and over, chinks appear in the darkness and Rodriguez starts to crawls towards the light. This intelligent, articulate, yet barely educated young man becomes involved, successively, in boxing, in urban art projects, in student politics. He even gets a book contract. But time and again, something hurls him back into the La Vida Loca. Sometimes it is his own demons of drink, drugs and despair. At other times it is the blind prejudice of the authorities, the violent aggression of the police or the bitter rivalry between different barrios that reopen the doors of hell.

In the end, Rodriguez escaped La Vida Loca. As he wrote, “There comes a moment when one faces the fresh features of an inner face, a time of conscious rebirth, when the accounting’s done, the weave in its final flourish, a time when a man stands before the world – vulnerable, nothing-owed – and considers his place in it. I had reached such a moment.”

Many years later, he wrote Always Running as a cautionary tale for his son, then 15, to warn him away from gang life – something which he failed to do. As he reveals in the foreword to the 2005 edition, his son is serving an 28 year term in jail for gang-related violence. But in other ways, the books has been vastly more successful. It has been recommended reading in schools, in prisons – and even assigned as part of offenders’ sentences. It is apparently one of the most checked out and most stolen books from US public libraries.

It has also achieved a spot on the American Library Association’s top 100 banned books list. That is perhaps not so surprising. Rodriguez’s account of La Vida Loca is raw – his depictions of sex, violence and drug taking sometimes eye-wateringly graphic. It needs to be. The life he depicts is real, and the young people the book is aimed at are living it.

You’ll Enjoy This if You Liked: East of Acre Lane by Alex Wheatle, Original Rude Boy by Neville Staple

Avoid if you dislike: Graphic depictions of sex, drugs and violence

Perfect Accompaniment: Large cheeseburger and fries and a stiff vodka

Genre: Non-Fiction

Available from Amazon

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