N ina Revoyr's second novel, Southland, follows a woman whose family history is marked by a murderous event that transpired during the 1965 Watts Riots. The main protagonist, Jackie, is a Japanese-American lesbian who researches her deceased grandfather's neighborhood market in Crenshaw, in the hopes of finding the intended recipient of a large portion of his will. She winds up learning from a man named James Canier about a multiple homicide that took place during the riots. Together, they embark on a quest to bring the killer to justice.

Tackling issues of multi-ethnicity, murder, sexuality, police brutality and racial oppression, Southland is rife with prime material, and it's amazing how deliberately the novel seems to avoid the meat of its many dramas. For the most part, the characters' stories are near misses of the experiences that would be most enthralling for the audience.

For starters, none of Southland's characters are directly involved in the 1965 riots, as demonstrated by Jackie's comparable recollection of watching the 1992 riots on TV, and having them come close, but not actually affect her home. The extremely mild concern over whether Jimmy will care if she's a lesbian proves entirely uncontroversial. Even the murder on which the entire investigative mystery pivots manages to be soft on both scandal and trickery.

Having chosen an entirely engrossing backdrop for the novel, Revoyr makes the mistake of ignoring it in favor of a comparatively uninteresting murder mystery. Toggling back and forth between the 1990s and 1960s, Southland tracks the lives of its characters as reflective of the development of Crenshaw. One of its more interesting focal points is the recounting of the Japanese-American experience there, which is often subsumed by the popular obsession with South Los Angeles as a battleground for African American drama.

However, this doesn't compensate for Southland's refusal to offer relevant illumination on the riots or the conditions under which they erupted. Such avoidance can only be justified with a plot that's exceptionally interesting, and Southland's, unfortunately, is not. MARJORIE SKINNER

Support The Portland Mercury

SLAY Film Fest
In person at the Clinton St. Theater 10/29 & 10/30