The plot of “Southland” by Nina Revoyr is distinctly noir, but the point of view is surprisingly rosy. Essentially, the novel is a murder mystery: The young heroine, Jackie Ishida, embarks upon a quest to find out whether her beloved grandfather once bloodied his hands in a multiple homicide. Along the way, however, Jackie rediscovers a time and place in the recent history of Los Angeles that the author conjures up as nothing less than a paradise.
The setting of “Southland” is a neighborhood once called Angeles Mesa and now known as the Crenshaw District. According to Revoyr, the Mesa was once a place of racial diversity and ethnic harmony, a garden spot where palm trees and orange trees grew side by side. “Hopeful newlyweds, coughing factory workers, old sharecroppers with hands hardened by years of labor, all bit into the sweet juicy oranges and thought they tasted heaven,” she writes. " ... And if their neighbors spoke a different language, wore a different color skin, here -- and only here -- it didn’t matter.”
Revoyr spins out several parallel narratives in “Southland,” deftly skipping back and forth among scenes set in the mid-'90s, the World War II era and the mid-'60s, when the memories of racial harmony in the Crenshaw District were shattered by the ugly reality of racial violence in the streets of Watts. The plot line of “Southland” is the stuff of a James Ellroy or a Walter Mosley novel, but it is elaborately intertwined with strands of urban history, family memoir and personal confession, all of it recounted with a certain sentimentality that one does not expect in hard-boiled fiction.
The focal point is Frank Sakai, Jackie’s grandfather, a decorated World War II combat veteran whose Crenshaw District grocery store was a gathering place for customers of all races in the years following the war. For Jackie, a UCLA law student, he is a remote but wholly benign figure, but when he dies and Jackie sets out to find the mysterious beneficiary to whom her grandfather left a boxful of cash, she discovers that the whole family has concealed a terrible secret: Four young black men were found dead in the freezer of his grocery store during the Watts Riots, and no one knows how they got there.
Revoyr, author of “The Necessary Hunger,” was born in Tokyo to a Japanese mother and a Polish American father and raised in Japan, Wisconsin and Los Angeles. Drawing on her own Japanese American family heritage, Revoyr decorates her murder mystery with touching moments in the lives of her characters: the giving of “condolence money” in white envelopes with black and silver ribbons by friends and family upon the death of Jackie’s grandfather, for example, and the ritual in which chopsticks are used to pass the charred bones among family members after the body has been cremated.
Still, she makes it clear that while the Japanese American families in the Crenshaw District may have preserved some of the old Japanese traditions, they aspired to success in purely American terms. "[S]tories of old Japan were like the best kind of fairy tales -- fantastical, with familiar elements and odd but recognizable characters,” she explains. What mattered more to the new generation were tennis competitions and college admissions, the badges of achievement and assimilation in the New World.
What drives Jackie to penetrate her own family’s deepest secrets is the self-willed failure of memory that afflicts her parents and grandparents. "[T]he entire Nisei generation might have taken a vow of silence,” Jackie muses. " ... More than gaps in the narrative; there was no narrative. Whole years, like the years of World War II, dropped cleanly from their collective history.”
So she undertakes the task of solving the old mystery of the dead bodies in her grandfather’s freezer. And she finds her way to a crucial mentor -- an African American social worker named James Lanier, an activist who pointedly calls the events of 1965 the Watts “uprising” but at the same time is full of compassion for the young woman whom he befriends. Together, they dare to seek answers to questions that have so far remained unasked.
“She seemed nice enough,” muses James about Jackie, " ... but her parents, clearly, had sent her into the world without the nourishment of her own family history.”
A subplot of “Southland” focuses on the problems in Jackie’s personal life, including a series of failed sexual relationships with Anglo women. “ ‘What’s the deal with you, anyway?’ ” taunts one of her Japanese American friends. “ ‘You’re like a reverse missionary. Rescuing the lost white children.’ ”
Her sexual orientation is one more thing that Jackie’s family refuses to talk about: "[C]onsidering how poorly they all did discussing anything of substance, she couldn’t imagine how her parents would deal with this.” Every kind of boundary is crossed as Jackie and James dig ever deeper into the cold case that has suddenly turned so hot. At moments, however, the crime at the heart of “Southland” seems almost beside the point; Revoyr is as much concerned with racial and sexual identity as she is with the motives for murder, and she insists that, even amid “carnage, blood, and sorrow,” it is possible to glimpse “something fresh and untouched, still capable of wonder.”
All of these tightly knotted strands are sorted out by the end of the novel, and more than one mystery is solved. The real killer is revealed, and Frank Sakai’s role turns out to be far more complex than Jackie (and the reader) have come to fear. After all of the heartbreak, it would be wrong to call it a happy ending. But the climax of “Southland” fairly glows with the good-heartedness that Revoyr displays from the very first page.