Gary Phillips is one of the royal family of ghetto lit. He has written novels, short stories and comic books, and has collaborated on a book with the rapper Ice-T. His tales are brutal and funny, and there is no better chronicler of the contemporary U.S.
The Underbelly may be his best book so far. Magrady is a semi-homeless, recovering alcoholic, post-traumatic stress-afflicted Vietnam veteran doing his best to survive in Los Angeles. He’s helped by such friends as his septuagenarian ex-movie starlet fuck-buddy Angie, a young social worker named Janis, and a fellow vet named El Cid. Then there’s his paraplegic friend Floyd, whose lust for quick riches causes Magrady to become a murder suspect and to have to deal with vicious and inept cops, vicious and inept criminals, and a mummified Aztec shaman.
Phillips writes characters who make John Shaft seem like Miss Marple, and Magrady is no exception. The story is fast-paced and violent, with dialogue worthy of Tarantino or Mamet, but this is also his richest and most warm-hearted book. It’s about friendship, family and atonement, and, most of all, about the need for dignity, the necessity of something meaningful to do. Foucault declared that “madness is the absence of work,” and by “work” he didn’t mean a job. Magrady in his desolation wants only to be useful, and that’s why he refuses to back off.
The novel is only 139 pages long, including drawings and photographs, and yet I think it’s the most comprehensive portrait of L.A. I’ve ever read. The book also contains an interview with Phillips in which he discusses his own background, his writing, politics, and the work of Donald Goines, to whom he is, indisputably, the heir.