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I've been re-reading quite a bit of James Ellroy in recent weeks. He's probably America's greatest living crime novelist, his delirious plotting and testosterone-fuelled prose creating an atmosphere somewhere between Hemingway and David Lynch.
Ellroy's best known for the LA Quartet, a series of novels based in 50s Los Angeles, full of sleaze; violent, driven heroes; sex crimes; unlikely conspiracy theories; and well-endowed dogs. LA Confidential is the most famous because of the film version (Ellroy's books are pretty much unfilmable as they are, but the makers of LA Confidential managed to make a film that felt like Ellroy even though they completely changed the second half of the story). American Tabloid was his first novel after he finished the quartet, and it's his masterpiece.
It's a huge sprawling monster of a book with a ridiculously complex plot. It takes place between 1959 and 1963, covering the secret history of America from the Cuban Revolution to the assassination of JFK. Unlike most Ellroy novels it doesn't confine itself to LA, taking in all manner of other locations, notably Miami. It doesn't have a shocking and bizarre crime driving the plot like most of his other books do, so it takes its time getting started. Some people have found that it lacks the energy of the earlier books because of this, but I disagree.
Ellroy likes having a trio of heroes whose fiendishly elaborate lives cross over and entwine together. Typically you'll have the older morally compromised cynic, a younger slightly naïve idealist and a huge, terrifyingly violent thug. And so it is in American Tabloid, more or less. Kemper Boyd is the cynic, working for the FBI,
the CIA, the mafia, anti-Castro Cubans and the Kennedys all at the same time, trying to juggle his responsibilities. Ward Littel is the idealist, a left-wing FBI agent trying to bring down organised crime to gain favour with Bobby Kennedy. Pete Bondurant is the thug, working for Howard Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa and Boyd, running blackmail scams and drug deals and anything else that crosses his path.
Backing them up is a supporting cast of some of the more notorious characters from recent American history. Howard Hughes (a dope fiend obsessed with microbes), Jimmy Hoffa (an unkempt thug), JFK (womaniser supreme) and his brother Bobby (stuck-up puritan), Jack Ruby (who sexually molests dogs) and J Edgar Hoover (the secret ruler of the world). Plus a cabal of scary gangsters led by Sam Giancana and funny cameos by Frank Sinatra and his entourage. All these characters are presented in ways that feel right - if nothing else they behave how I'd expect them to, based on conceptions of them I've picked up from popular culture. American Tabloid presents the myth, always more important than the reality. It’s how you feel things should have happened, even if they didn’t.
In a nutshell the book describes how the mob, with the connivance of various US intelligence agencies, bring JFK to power and then dispose of him, and how the three main characters are involved in all this from beginning to end. (That's not a spoiler, is it? Everyone knows that JFK was assassinated, right?) It's done brilliantly - the interplay between the various characters, real and fictional, their ever shifting relationships and power struggles, builds up a pretty convincing picture of the conspiracy behind the Kennedy assassination, and many other things. (Not necessarily convincing in a realistic way, but it certainly feels right – as I said, if this isn't how America was in the early 60s then it's how it ought to have been.)
Lots of the usual Ellroy themes are in American Tabloid. There's the obsession with celebrity gossip (epitomised by the made-up Hollywood scandal sheet ‘Hush Hush’). The plot is, as usual, damned complicated, although it doesn't get quite as crazy as, say, White Jazz or The Big Nowhere. The language is also typical - packed with great 50s and 60s ethnic colloquialisms that may not even exist outside of Ellroy's head. People call each other 'sh*tbird' a lot, they 'glom' things (not sure what that means), they 'scarf' things (that means eat, I'm pretty sure). And the favoured euphemism for the male member is 'schlong'.
Nice to see that the women in the book do slightly better than usual. In previous books Ellroy's women were either murderous prostitutes or rape victims. (Ellroy's mother was murdered when he was a child. He has claimed that his earlier novels were about him trying to come to terms with this). It's still the case that none of the female characters are as important as the men (they're not written nearly as well - they don't seem to be there in the way the men are) but at least you can read about them without feeling vague post-feminist alarm. (Ellroy's readership is largely male - any ladies read any of his stuff? Let me know what you thought...)
Ellroy's world is deranged. It's a world where men scream and hang up halfway through phone calls for no reason. Where the best way to interrogate a man is by beating him senseless (preferably so he starts spitting out teeth, or, even better, gold bridgework). Where lots of Cubans get killed. Where men who succeed are violent greedy evil bastards and men who don't are effete weaklings. Where the president sleeps with a cheap hooker in a bugged hotel room while Sinatra plays Vegas and Howard Hughes injects heroin into his penis. Where really important things are written in BLOCK CAPITALS. Where the prose is often cut down so far that you haven't got the faintest idea what the hell is going on. (This is one of the main reasons that it's often difficult to understand Ellroy's plots - important revelations come and go in a series of three-word paragraphs.)
Ellroy's damn funny when he wants to be, and often extremely nasty. I think his stuff is very much worth reading. It's high art masquerading as genre dreck, or maybe vice versa. It's sleaze taken to a deliberately ludicrous extreme. Ellroy is both incredibly sincere and utterly hilarious (now there's postmodernism for you). I guess he's not for everyone - I expect his macho values, plus what some will see as borderline misogyny and racism, will put a lot of people off. I like his work a lot, and think American Tabloid is a towering achievement - bizarre and funny and sordid. Essential reading. It's The Brothers Karamazov as retold by Michael Corleone and Jerry Lewis, with the Ratpack on the jukebox. I wouldn't like to meet Ellroy - he has a scary-looking dog and would probably break my wrists for no reason - but I'll happily read his books.
(American Tabloid was the first in a trilogy. The second, The Cold Six Thousand, is not a patch on the first. The third, Blood’s A Rover, has only just appeared in paperback.)
President Kennedy's dead?! Nobody tells me anything. I heard James Ellroy on Desert Island Discs a few months ago and he came over as a fascinating but slightly off the wall character, as you would expect. To say he's had an eventful life is an understatment and the interview was quite enlightening as to why his books contain many of the themes they do.
tallulahbang 20.06.2010 16:53
Sleaze, violence and well-hung dogs, you say? Duly added to the Amazon wishlist. xx