In the wake of the Watts riots, Budd Schulberg helped to found the Watts Writers Workshop, mentoring African American writers such as Coleman, Quincy Troupe, Eric Priestley and the performance poetry group the Watts Prophets. In the wake of Watts, the city catalyzed around a variety of elements, not least the iconography of the fires, of L.A. turning inward to devour itself. "The city burning," Joan Didion wrote in her 1967 essay "Los Angeles Notebook," tracing the line of a more extensive history, "is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself: Nathanael West perceived that, in 'The Day of the Locust'; and at the time of the 1965 Watts riots what struck the imagination most indelibly were the fires. For days one could drive the Harbor Freeway and see the city on fire, just as we had always known it would be in the end."
No equivalent sense of history emerges when we think about 1992. Instead, we are left with fragments, snapshots, the loose tiles of what former Mayor Tom Bradley liked to call "the glorious mosaic," which the riots revealed to be a lie. That's true even of King's memoir "The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption" (HarperOne: 245 pp., $25.99), which seeks to capitalize on the 20th anniversary of the riots but never offers a coherent point of view. It's unfair, perhaps, to expect this of King, who was thrust, or thrust himself, into a situation beyond his control. Nonetheless, it's also emblematic of the vagaries, the displacement, the lack of a collective vision, our inability even now to take a broad, inclusive perspective on the riots and what they mean.
All of this begs one last question: What, if any, responsibility does literature have to current events? It's a mistake to parse writing so overtly, to expect it to function as anything other than an oblique lens. And yet, it's also impossible not to think about E.M. Forster's "buzz of implication," the impression on a writer of his or her time and place.
Other books have touched on the 1992 riots; you can find a bibliography on the Internet. Most are academic or legal, but some are more than that: William T. Vollmann's "The Atlas," which features a brief essay about driving into L.A. on the night the fires erupted, or Michael Connelly's novel "The Concrete Blonde," in which a serial killer's victim is found beneath the ruins of a building that was burned. Even there, however, the riots exist on the periphery, as backdrop rather than centerpiece.
To some extent, that highlights the disposability of memory in Los Angeles, although more to the point is the diffusion with which we continue to approach this event. Either way, I keep coming back to Sampogna, to Coleman, George and Rayner, and their sense of "our (dis)connection," of the riots as a story we have never quite known how to tell.