The 1992 Los Angeles riots belong to an almost forgotten part of contemporary American history. Though they were deadlier than the '65 Watts riots, claiming over fifty dead and causing billions of dollars in damage, they have more or less faded into our collective unconscious. No major film -- Hollywood or otherwise -- has emerged to claim the tragic events which officially lasted an entire five days -- from April 29th to May 4th. Little has been written to attempt to come to terms with the complex emotions and tensions that erupted into open racial and class conflict one fateful night when the brutal videotaped beating of Rodney King by white policemen unleashed a veritable hell of hatred and fire onto Los Angeles--until Aris Janigian's This Angelic Land, that is.
Janigian's perceptive and sometimes gripping novel brings together some of LA's many tribes -- African-American, WASP, Korean, Armenian, Jewish -- into an emotional and intellectual conflagration that mirrors the burning and looting that the city suffered. Like some concrete carcass laid bare no one -- not police or armed shop owner or concerned citizen -- seems capable of saving the City of Angels from its dire fate in what the novel aptly terms a Korean Kristallnacht. Janigian, the talented author of two previous novels Bloodvine and Riverbig, recounts the events through multiple lenses, but mainly through the eyes of narrator Eric Derderian who lives in New York City and his 27 year-old Angeleno brother Adam. The Derderians are refugees twice over, having settled in Lebanon after the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1923 and once again fled the carnage of the Lebanese Civil War to settle in LA:
"My name is Eric Derderian. My family were refugees from the Lebanese Civil War, and yes there was dark irony in the fact that they were now reliving the horrors we had crossed half the world to escape. Yes, I worried about them, but alongside the worry, I confess was a vague satisfaction in watching LA get exactly what it deserved for the very reasons I had left it." (p7)
Once in LA the Derderians must start over, not an easy thing for the family patriarch who is no longer young and speaks inflected English at best. Adam studies business at USC but is an artist at heart, someone struggling to find himself amidst the conflicting pull of family expectations, get-rich-quick schemes and a Protestant work ethic gone awry -- much to his surprise, he comes to realize, for example, that his best friend from USC has grown up in a family of alcoholic WASPS that lie around the pool all day drinking and will only support their own in business. In high school, we learn that as an Armenian, Derderian (who now supports himself as a bar owner), also battled wacked-out notions of color and race: "Some figured he was kind of Messican, some wondered whether Arm-onion was A-rab. Say whah, Lebuhn-on where de fuck ih dat? Syria, and Israel, in that general direction, he might've said, if he'd thought it would help." (P46) Derderian has never considered himself white but to the African-Americans he encounters he is just another cracker until he earns their respect by matching their verbal agility with a pun of his own, achieving a type of Pax Ethnicana:
"That's where the war was man, being Armenian in Lebanon is like being black in America.
"Exactly; Armain-yun. When you hear it you think, OUR MAIN MAN. Get it?!" He spread his arms out. It was an all-in absurdist wager ... Suddenly they had smiles on their faces, and their heads began to bob like dashboard dogs. 'Awright den. Ah main man. U coo.'" (p47)
Written partly as a third-person account and partly from a first-person perspective, This Angelic Land also intercuts re-imagined dialogue from television reports of the events. It's a bizarre feeling for the Derderians and others spread about who actually watch the city simultaneously burn right before their very eyes and on television, as if video confirmation of the events were necessary. Janigian cleverly reproduces the type of staid, meaningless dialogue that we have come to expect from TV. Here are news anchors Tim and Trish:
Disturbing, very disturbing.
(contemplating the sign [BLACK OWNED])
Very, but... in a way... in a way, we can understand." (p97)
Janigian's prose hits just the right spot: it is not overly-realistic, and although he experiments with linguistic juxtapositions, regionalisms and levels of language, he never goes as far as some contemporary writers whose prose is so abstruse that the story itself loses all interest. This Angelic Land makes a sensible contribution to contemporary American letters on its way to sparing no one in its wake. One of its main characters, though, offers a message of hope in the Prologue: "At the heart of a story, the Kurd told me, there should be love--a man and woman, or friends, two people, anyway, who, amid the destruction, find in each other what may be worth dying for, what may even require it. As the city burns, imagine them at the kitchen table with cups of coffee, an atom of intimacy in a galaxy of waste... certain that if such goodness between two people were possible then all was not lost, even if it might all be destroyed." (P1)
Adam finds his one refuge amidst this violence and galaxy of Hollywood waste thanks to a wise old professor, a Jewish homosexual improbably named The Wizard who gives Adam a room in his house on the hills, to which our Derderian retreats whenever possible. The Wizard, to my mind, is the one character who rings a bit false in an otherwise nearly flawless novel: born on a Midwestern farm and partly self-educated, he dispenses his brand of all-knowing wisdom with a type of haughty detachment that makes him hard to empathize with. The Wizard, it turns out, has also suffered much in life, his books and intellectual condescension also a refuge from the horrors that he has seen and experienced. And yet, in a life otherwise full of turns and twists, it turns out that even he will not be able to spare his friend and confidant Adam Derderian a most tragic of endings.
This Angelic Land, on West for West Books is available at www.amazon.com