If you’re like me, when you think of gangs you think of Los Angeles. Academically, we know there are gangs everywhere, but thanks to movies like Boyz N The ’Hood and games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (which really capitalizes on previous efforts like Boyz), gangs and LA just naturally go together. Places like Compton and South Central are famous for things other than palm trees and sunshine, and it’s common knowledge that there are certain exits to avoid when you’re on the LA freeways.
All of that stems from the early ’90s, when the gangs practically took over many LA neighborhoods, and still run them. The Mexican drug cartels dominate the news these days, so you don’t hear much about the gangs. If you do, it’s about how MS-13 and similar Hispanic gangs are tied in with the cartels, often acting as soldiers for them in the US.
So, if you think of gangs, and especially black gangs, you think of LA.
Gunmetal Black by David Serrano will change your thinking on that, at least a little bit.
David Serrano is Puerto Rican and grew up in Chicago and New York. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of those two cities, I mostly think of organized crime, especially from the ’30s and ’40s. You know, Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Siegel, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, all that. Maybe that stuff is decades in the past, but it’s taken a place in our American mythology that it probably won’t fall out of.
Of course, those who are up on gang activity know both cities are rife with it. Talk about Queens in New York or the South Side in Chicago, and a lot of people picture gangs. But, again, blacks carry most of the weight. They made thug life famous, thanks to being the first to bring gangsta rap to the music scene. Add in famous murders like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., along with lifelong gangstas like Snoop Dogg, and the picture of black gangs dominates.
But they’re not the only ones doing it. I have a two-disc DVD set called Gang Wars that contains two HBO documentaries about, of all places, Little Rock, Arkansas. Mostly famous for the Little Rock Nine—as if the city is frozen in that time and place—most people don’t think of it as a gang hotspot. But back in the ’90s, it had a higher per capita murder rate than Los Angeles.
Yes, you read that right.
Gang members from LA moved to Arkansas during that era, and that meant there were wars between Crips and Bloods, not to mention sets associated with Folk Nation out of Chicago.
Chicago. That’s where Gunmetal Black takes place. It’s the story of Eduardo Santiago. He’s just gotten out of Statesville and his lifelong friend, Tony, is picking him up to take him back to Chicago.
Eddie’s plan is simple: while in prison, he dealt pot and saved up forty grand. He’s gonna stay in Chicago a couple days before he heads out to Miami. The forty grand is to invest in a record label with a guy he did time with named Chiva. Eddie likes music—music plays a big part in this book—and he and Chiva want to have a label dedicated to salsa music.
Problem is, Tony won’t drop him off. Tony keeps cruising around, visiting some of his dealers and telling Eddie about his escalating war with Roach, another gang leader. Eddie keeps trying to get Tony to take him where he’s gonna stay for a few days, but Tony keeps going here and there, making excuses until finally they’re jacked up by two dirty cops who take Eddie’s money and find a .38 under Tony’s seat that Eddie learns might be tied to a murder committed earlier that night. And, of course, it has his prints all over it.
The harder Eddie tries to get out of Chicago, the harder it works to keep him. The two cops hassle him, Tony’s doing so much coke he’s afraid vampires—honest to God supernatural vampires—are after him, and an old acquaintance named Pelón, the man who brought them both up back in the ’80s, wants to rob one of the floating casinos for a major haul.
Meanwhile, Eddie meets a Mexican woman of Aztec descent named Xochitl (pronounced so-chee) and she starts making him wonder if he wants to go to Miami after all.
I won’t give any more away, but I highly recommend this book. Mr. Serrano grew up in Chicago and New York and witnessed gang life first-hand. He’s seen murder and all of it, so he’s writing from personal experience.
Eddie narrates the story, and he’s got a good voice. He keeps you interested and makes you root for him, even as he’s forced to take part in things he’d rather leave behind. Not everything turns out all with some kind of Hollywood happy ending, but everything is more or less resolved, even if not in the way we’d all like to see it.
I think that’s one of the things I enjoyed most about this novel is its realism. It’s not typical Hollywood fare. Eddie doesn’t get everything he wants, but he gets enough of it that he can go on with his life. I don’t know if there’s supposed to be a sequel (I haven’t had a chance to look Mr. Serrano up on Fantastic Fiction yet), but this book contains a preview of Boogiedown, his second novel, and what I saw looks good.
So if you like good crime that has a heart and an intriguing lead character, as well as a look at gang life that’s not typical LA Crips vs. Bloods, pick up Gunmetal Black by David Serrano. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. It’s not perfect, but it’s definitely one of the better books I’vre read this year.