Reviews

Odysseus Wanders Los Angeles in ‘Graffiti Palace’

A.G. Lombardo's "stunning" debut revisits the Watts Riots of 1965.

What if you were far from home during the apocalypse? Graffiti Palace, in a clever, appropriately meandering retelling of the Odyssey, forces us to ask this question as “amateur urbanologist” Americo Monk journeys homeward through the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles.

In Homer’s epic, Odysseus attempts to return home to his wife and son after fighting in the Trojan War for ten years. While he’s traversing the Mediterranean, his wife is set upon by boorish suitors.

In Graffiti Palace, Monk’s mission is to document L.A.’s titular street art. In a worn spiral notebook, he tracks the “ever-shifting territories and feared alliances” of warring gangs, making him a person of interest (and value) to the police and the gangs themselves. Then, Monk get caught up in the Watts Riots — six days of violence that leaves 34 people dead.

Graffiti Palace is stunning — a blend of Joe Ide‘s IQ detective novels, Thomas Pynchon, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. Like Pynchon, Lombardo is particularly adept at creating that eerie, hackles-raising feeling when something normal morphs into something absurd, like a mutant strain of albino marijuana spreading through the L.A. sewers.

The most obvious inspiration drawn from the Odyssey are the characters Monk meets on the way home home — the gangs, the drug dealers, the street artists — who each serve as a vehicle for a piece of Los Angeles history. This is where Lombardo feels a lot like Pynchon, who likes to blend history with fantasy.

As with Odysseus, Monk has someone waiting for him at home: his pregnant girlfriend, Karmenn. Decades ahead of the HGTV series, Container Homes, they live in a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles. From a storytelling perspective, it’s an excellent set piece for introducing Karmenn’s suitors when she attempts to find a quiet spot for a cigarette break. On the other hand, the containers are arranged in a very sophisticated way that would take a lot of resources, both financial and physical, leading to some worldbuilding questions that are never quite resolved.

It’s impossible to read Graffiti Palace without thinking about Black Lives Matter and our country’s ongoing reckoning with police violence against people of color. And by revisiting the Watts Riots — a landmark moment that most Americans have already forgotten — Lombardo reminds us that like the Trojans and the Achaeans, we are doomed to repeat past bloodshed unless that reckoning continues.

9780374165918_254d3FICTION
Graffiti Palace by A.G. Lombardo
MCD x FSG
Published March 13, 2018

A. G. Lombardo teaches at a Los Angeles public high school. Graffiti Palace is his debut novel.

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1 comment on “Odysseus Wanders Los Angeles in ‘Graffiti Palace’

  1. Grant Barber

    This 60 yr old, liberal white guy, seeking ‘the rules.” I’ve started this novel, w/principally characters who are black, from African diaspora by heritage, written by a white guy. So rule number 1, from the past: works of imagination, creativity if done well (by whatever measure) are fine, a piece of what art does…women writing from male perspective, vice versa; young from old; gay from straight writer….trans character written by cis author? Here is where I get tangled up with rule 2: cultural appropriation might be an overused, almost cliched charge at times, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something real to pay attention to there. When Styron wrote his Nat Turner book he was critiqued, and that was decades ago. I’m not finding a lot of reviews of this novel, but what I have found pay no attention or mention of this, and are all by (as far as I can tell) white reviewers…and this one by a member of a generation stereotyped at least as really tuned into such concerns. I’ve enjoyed the prose of the author of the novel…just in my lane of interesting style, etc. But…what’s the deal? I don’t think we have to look for strictly 1st person experiences reflected in fiction: then only police could write about police protagonists, people from one generation not able to write from the perspective of another, let alone issues of sex, gender, class, race…. We are living though in a fraught, important historical moment…sort of pointed to with this review’s reference to Black Life Matters. To be clear, I find nothing so far in the book that makes me think, at all, ‘gosh, this guy is a racist.’ I’m not sure I’m the ideal reader, the definitive spokesperson on the matter though. Shouldn’t the whole area of conversation be brought into the discussion, or am I the only one seeing the elephant in the room?

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