In a review of American Tabloid
(1995), William T. Vollmann made the extraordinary and correct observation that ‘‘every sentence advances the plot’’ in James Ellroy’s 576-page novel. The two subsequent books of Ellroy’s ‘‘Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy’’ are even longer, even more densely sequenced, so I won’t make a fool’s attempt to describe their narrative action. Nor will I even try to expound upon their themes—no matter that they show Ellroy long ago embracing what everyone now calls the Deep State, whose extreme-high and extreme-low hidden forces squeeze history out of the vast citizenry caught in the middle. What I can only hope to suggest is the intimacy
of these novels, how they remain wondrously suffused, even in moments of spectacular mayhem, with the inner torments of those inflicting violence on others. These relentlessly plotted books are finally not about events; they’re about characters.
Some are tormented by crude certainties and brutal secrets. The most important of these is Pete Bondurant, Ellroy’s ‘‘big Caucasian madman,’’ forty years old in 1960, who began piling up a vertiginous body count in the battle of Saipan (‘‘He killed them and killed them and killed them’’). Those deaths, along with the subsequent murder of his own brother back home, become the first reel of Bondurant’s ‘‘standard
nightmares.’’ Later, he is at the bone-breaking beck and call of Jimmy Hoffa and Howard Hughes and a rogue CIA officer named John Stanton. Though he rampages freely, Pete has the wild sentimentality of a convict: he is able to strangle Betty McDonald, an inconvenient witness, before becoming helplessly devoted to her cat. For years he has the love of Barb Jahelka—dedicated, damaged, implicated—but he has to worry he’ll lose her over his involvement in Jack Kennedy’s death and then Bobby’s. It is an absurd triumph of Ellroy’s artistry, a testament to his own depths of feeling, that Bondurant remains believable.
But it is the characters tormented by ambivalence, the ones sickened more by doubt than gore, who compel the reader’s own disturbed devotion. In American Tabloid
and The Cold Six Thousand
(2001), we are ensnared by the existence of Ward Littell, a lifelong weathervane in an unending electrical storm. This orphan ‘‘raised in Jesuit foster homes,’’ an ex-seminarian and trained lawyer turned disillusioned FBI agent, continually divides into ‘‘Angry Ward’’ and ‘‘Cautious Ward.’’ He is flooded with guilt, drink, paranoia and masochism; Hoover sees him as ‘‘the world’s most dangerous wimp.’’ Drifting left, he gives his heart to the young rackets-busting Robert Kennedy, even while he’s supposed to be undermining him for Hoover. Littell embarks on a Grail quest for the Teamsters’ secret pension-fund books, a potential offering to RFK, but ends up being pulled into the servitude of the Mafia and of Hoffa himself. Five months of sobriety teaches Littell one essential fact: ‘‘You’re capable of anything.’’
‘‘Anything’’ runs from maudlin tenderness to multiple murders; even to ‘‘an ugly wave of love’’ for Hoover. He’ll imagine he’s protecting Martin Luther King’s movement even as he’s duped into a white-supremacist plot. After the decade’s trinity of King and Kennedy assassinations, he’ll be able to cry: ‘‘Their blood’s on me.’’ And he will be left with no alternative to the self-erasure he’s been seeking all along. As he exits the trilogy, the reader is left terrified of his own suppressions and contradictions.
The novels are driven by men whose longings and impulses cannot suppress or
resolve themselves. Wayne Tedrow, Jr., lives through the last two volumes in the same kind of polarized pain that Littell endures for the first two. A young officer ‘‘considered incorruptible by Las Vegas Police standards,’’ Wayne is sent to Dallas by his father, a friend of Hoover’s, just prior to the Kennedy assassination. (‘‘You never know when you might rub shoulders with history.’’) He experiences incestuous flirtation, revenge-fucking and finally a tender, intense connection with his stepmother, Janice. Wayne Jr. despises his own race hatred and spends his psychological energy trying to control and atone for it, even as he keeps killing blacks. Sonny Liston, the onetime heavyweight champion and occasional goon-savant of the trilogy, puts it this way: ‘‘That boy just didn’t have no hate for anybody, but shit kept finding him. He kept trying to find niggers to kill and niggers to save, and this woman of his thought it was all the same goddamn thing.’’
Wayne Sr. explains his son to Ward Littell, who ought to know: ‘‘Junior was a hider. Junior was a watcher. Junior lit flames. Junior torched. Junior lived in his head.’’ By the spring of ’68 he’ll be ‘‘muscling’’ Sirhan Sirhan toward RFK at the Ambassador Hotel, and when he watches the riots that follow the killing of Martin Luther King, he thinks: ‘‘I Did That
.’’ When the Nixon years begin, he abets the Mob’s scheme to recreate its old Cuba-style action in the Dominican Republic—until he flips again and literally cuts the shackles from the slaves building the casinos.
The greatest of Ellroy’s doomed ambivalents, and the biggest stretch of his imagination, is Marshall E. Bowen—‘‘Anomaly. Incongruity. Anti-white hate-tract subscriber, potential L.A. cop’’—who doesn’t come along until the last volume, Blood’s A Rover
(2009). This African-American who infiltrates left-wing and black militant groups appears cool and pacific but actually ‘‘lives for the game.’’ On the downlow sexually and in every other way possible, Bowen keeps a journal about the mental vise he lives inside: ‘‘As always, I abut that maddening disjuncture: the viable construction of black identity and the dubious construction of revolution, as implemented by criminal scum seeking to cash in on legitimate social grievance and cultural trend.’’ (He can’t live authentically even in the diary; it ends up being doctored by those who need to frame him.) Bowen finds romantic escape in his obsession—shared by a number of characters, including the white-racist cop Scotty Bennett—with the years-old unsolved heist of an armored car full of emeralds. But like Littell and Tedrow he can reach only death, not fulfillment.
It’s the same with Dwight Holly, another rogue FBI agent who figures largely in the last two volumes, a man Hoover calls ‘‘my obedient Yalie thug.’’ Holly shoulders the guilt of some long-ago drunk-driving murders; heads up the racist Operation Black Rabbit; becomes enthralled with two different women of the far left and is nearly, but not quite, persuaded to take out Hoover. In Ellroy’s political-psychological calculus, he too has to die, unresolved and unredeemed.
Which leaves a transfiguring space for the most unlikely character of them all, the real-life Don Crutchfield, a twenty-three-year-old wheelman for an L.A. private investigator, universally regarded as a ‘‘dipshit,’’ who stumbles into the last volume of the trilogy. Crutch seems at first to be a throwaway, a goofball version of the author’s feckless youth: his résumé includes Ellroy’s legendary phase of peeping, B&E and panty-sniffing, as well as a mother who’s been missing, if not actually dead, since he was ten. Crutch could have remained a harmless bit of authorial self-indulgence, Ellroy’s comic riff on his own over-interpreted personal mythology, but the character gradually becomes the most important figure in the whole three-volume epic of violence and longing. It is this dipshit who finally pulls Excalibur from its bloody stone; it is this boy-man who hatches out of his own obsessions to receive anointing.
Crutch begins as an emulator, an overgrown Robin to dirty Batman-like cop Scotty Bennett and the political mass-killer Jean-Philippe Mesplede. He will decide he wants a piece of the mayhem he overhears and initially fears, and will be swept into anti-Castro scalpings; the Mob’s Dominican scheme; the ramifying mystery of the emeralds. But his real fixation remains ‘‘the knife-scar woman,’’ the peerlessly rendered Joan Rosen Klein, Ellroy’s avatar of twentieth-century American radicalism and a compulsive passion for Dwight Holly as well. Crutch’s crusade for connection with her turns him into ‘‘the nexus of great and startling events,’’ a position that truly, in a different way from what we expected, makes him the analog of Ellroy, who has this whole fictional world in his hands. He explains to Joan the motive for everything he’s done: ‘‘So women will love me.’’ For women, read Joan, who contains multitudes.
Ellroy himself has said that his books ‘‘are all about one thing and one thing only, a man meets a woman.’’ But in the next breath of the same interview, the author stated: ‘‘I’m a Christian: the books are about redemption.’’ Crutch has that covered, too, more fully than any other character in the trilogy. He is not, even early on, just a peeper. He is learning to see not only through the window but also to see himself in the glass. His action becomes bolder; his vision keener. But one never supplants the other. When he finally makes love to Joan, he watches himself doing it.
Crutch will devote his whole life to avenging her and destroying Hoover, who has called so many tunes in the trilogy, and whose files are themselves a paper castle of voyeurism. Ellroy may be a man of the right, but his fictional alter ego is the one who completes a leftwards political transformation that the ambivalents only begin and then abort. A conservative might say that Ellroy, like Milton, is of the devil’s party without knowing it, but the author rejects any notion of apostasy. Blood’s A Rover
is what it is because a real-life Joan entered Ellroy’s
real life. He wrote it for her.
After Hoover and his files meet their fate, the transcendent Crutch, like Ishmael, becomes the only one left to tell the tale. ‘‘God gave me a restless temperament and a searcher’s discipline.’’ Ellroy, who could so easily have remained a dipshit instead of becoming a front-rank artist, allows Crutchfield something he can’t allow Littell or Wayne Jr., or Holly or Bowen. He lets him live.
Thus, on September 21, 1996, did Ellroy inscribe to me an advance copy of My Dark Places
. We were in Toledo, Ohio, at a regional convention of the American Booksellers Association, where I was pushing my novel Dewey Defeats Truman
and James was drumming up business for My Dark Places
, the story of his unsuccessful but liberating search for the man who had murdered Geneva Hilliker Ellroy in 1958. If the case stayed unsolved, the author’s childhood trauma bloomed into a new self-awareness. Ellroy is now conscious that Blood’s A Rover
, more than ten years in the future, would never have been written without the maternal reckoning he experienced in the mid-1990s.
James had published ‘‘My Mother’s Killer,’’ the dry run for My Dark Places
, in Gentlemen’s Quarterly
, where I was the books columnist and we developed a friendly acquaintance. In Toledo we ran into each other in the hotel elevator and went off for a drink. No, I
had a drink; James had coffee. I describe him in my diary on that day as ‘‘militantly sober’’—‘‘for nineteen years,’’ he told me, before diagnosing a number of our publishing colleagues as people ruining themselves with alcohol and cigarettes. ‘‘His conversation is as jazzy and juju-ridden as ever,’’ I noted. We talked about the Kennedy assassination, he from the Grassy Knoll and I from the lone-nutter’s sniper perch. But what I most took away from the encounter was a sense of James’ discipline, his pride in being a man of letters. He has said that he would like to give younger writers, along with an impulse toward ‘‘moral fiction and Romanticism,’’ a belief in ‘‘meticulous and assiduous planning.’’ The mapping out of his novels is a matter of Homeric, painstaking rigor. It’s his outlines, hundreds of pages per book, that allow him ‘‘to live improvisationally within the text.’’ No matter how violent and entropic the action on the page may seem, the novels require his obedience to their own laws and consistencies. Freedom follows form. As an artist, Ellroy is closer to Petrarch than to Kerouac.
But he is also a breaker of forms. He has, in fact, reversed the polarity of most historical fiction. Instead of inventing previously nonexistent characters to function as narrative conveniences, means of access to the famous real-life figures in whom the reader is truly interested, Ellroy makes his
creations the focus of reader attention. In the underworld trilogy, Robert F. Kennedy is of no importance except for how he acts upon the psychology of Ward Littell. Ellroy’s Howard Hughes and especially J. Edgar Hoover—reptilian, slightly camp, brilliantly bent and ultimately demented—provide over-the-top entertainment, but they
are the foils, the vehicles to plunge us into the churning inner lives of Ellroy’s own newborns, such as Pete Bondurant and Dwight Holly. However brilliantly drawn, the major-but-finally-minor historical figures never provide the viewpoint and never lead us to the truth.
The invented characters and the reincarnations share an extended opus that is brought to life from an astonishing arsenal of techniques. Start with Ellroy’s parodic skills: they derive from an avid and incomparable ear. Hush-Hush
magazine, the scandal sheet beloved by readers of the L.A. Quartet, alliterates its way to new political life in American Tabloid
, thanks to Lenny Sands, lounge singer, snitch and now stringer: CANCEROUS CASTRO COMMUNISTICALLY CALCIFIES CUBA WHILE HEROIC HERMANOS HUNGER FOR HOMELAND! FBI wiretap transcripts and memoranda scarcely need the typewriter font they’re given in the text; their illusion of authenticity is accomplished by the exactness of their diction. Ellroy is not the first writer to deliver hilarious Mob dialogue (‘‘It’s Mount Ararat, Jimmy. Mount Vesuvius is in fucking Yellowstone Park’’), but unlike most practitioners of noir
he knows the limits of cleverness. ‘‘Repartee is one thing,’’ says Joe Kennedy’s supposed illegitimate daughter, ‘‘and the truth is another.’’
Slang, in both the narration and dialogue, is always operating on two levels, the literal and the ironic; it may be amusing, but it’s to be respected, sifted for meaning. When The Cold Six Thousand
takes us to Vietnam, the French-Viet patois—all ‘‘diphthongs and shouts’’—proves a fresh aural bonanza. It’ll be the same when Blood’s a Rover
gets to Haiti: ‘‘Tinted windows shaded all the pauvre
shit outside.’’ If the right language, the right words, don’t exist, Ellroy makes them up—letting compound adjectives take life from a verb: it’s ‘‘smack-your-head hot,’’ and the little Dominican houses have ‘‘boing-your-eyes paint jobs.’’
Every one of those sentences advancing the plot still has to have peripheral vision, a strobe-lit descriptive capacity to capture the world we’re marauding through. The economy of Ellroy’s representations consistently stuns. During the FBI raid of a Cuban exiles’ camp, ‘‘a big bilingual roar went up.’’ That’s all you require. JFK’s marriage vows are ‘‘expedient and whimsical’’; his funeral will give rise to ‘‘epidemic boo-hoo.’’ A woman widowed by Teamster violence ‘‘smelled like Vicks VapoRub and cigarettes.’’ She lives.
Ellroy regards participles with about the same contempt he does drink. Why would he let them slow him down, take the edge off his pacing and perceptions? ‘‘Shoes went thunk.’’ Period. The action typically feels both immediate and habitual; it’s lyric and
refrain. ‘‘Time slogged. Wayne yawned. Wayne stretched. Wayne picked his nose.’’ The author goes beyond keeping his verbs active. Again and again he gives agency to theoretically inanimate objects: ‘‘Wood chips sliced his face . . . mulch slammed up against his goggles’’; ‘‘Blood-soaked feathers billowed.’’ Everything
lives. And every tableau is vivant
They killed time. The jumbo pad let them kill it separately.
Chucky watched spic TV. King Carlos buzzed his serfs longdistance. Pete fantasized ninety-nine ways to murder Ward Littell.
Success depends not just on perfect pitch, but also on superb period detail—Wayne Jr. goes through someone’s kitchen drawers on January 12, 1964, finding ‘‘flatware and Green Stamps’’—and the knowledge, before you describe something like a wiretap, of how it actually works: ‘‘House-to-car bug feeds always ran rough.’’
When it’s just gossip about celebrities, sex in Ellroy is good, guffawing, Hush-Hush
fun: ‘‘Bing Crosby knocked up Dinah Shore. Dinah got twin Binglets scraped at a clap clinic in Cleveland.’’ When it’s between the major characters he’s created himself, it’s a holy, serious business—rarely seen with any explicitness or at any length. It’s desperate, intense sex for desperate, intense people. Barb’s ‘‘big veins and big freckles looked like nothing [Pete had] ever seen. He kissed them and bit them and pushed her into the wall with his mouth.’’ The most moving of the sex scenes occurs at the end of The Cold Six Thousand
, when Wayne Jr. sleeps with his cancer-ridden stepmother, Janice: ‘‘She tasted sick. It stunned him. The taste settled in. He tasted her inside. He kissed her new scars. Her breath fluttered thin.’’ Sex is collusive, deep need reaching to deep need, each drowning the other. Surface sex bores Ellroy as much as the ‘‘small lives’’ he sees as the cuisine-minceur
subject matter of most American literary fiction.
His great invented characters, those ambivalents, may be the blood and bone of the saga, but even as we inhabit them, follow what they have at stake, dodge their dangers and nauseate on their guilts, Ellroy never makes them ‘‘point-of-view’’ characters in the ways conventional to fiction. We do not come to them via the ‘‘close third person’’—that narrative staple in which echoes of a character’s diction and thought processes nearly, but never quite, turn third person into first. At regular intervals the characters are called—pulled up short—by their proper names instead of pronouns. No matter how deep inside them Ellroy goes, the narrative voice always remains the narrator’s. Except for brief stretches—in those ‘‘collage’’ elements of memoranda and transcript and private diaries—the narrator will not surrender it, not even to Crutchfield, except for three italicized pages at the beginning and the very end of Blood’s A Rover
: Ellroy’s highest vocal honor. Otherwise, like God or a woman, the author remains free to bug out on these characters anytime he wants to.
For all his certainties of craft, the style of the trilogy morphs from book to book. It shrinks; it grows; it explodes. American Tabloid
will not feel too alien to those who know the L.A. Quartet. But then, in The Cold Six Thousand
, the syntax becomes so abbreviated and staccato that noun phrases sometimes go without predicates: ‘‘Scotch and wet tobacco. Old barroom smells.’’ After that, according to Ellroy himself, Blood’s A Rover
is more ‘‘explicated,’’ easier on the reader sentence for sentence if not chapter by chapter. Its plot is the trilogy’s most intricate and interconnected; its impact the deepest and most chastening of the three books.
In the trilogy’s sixth paragraph, published more than twenty years ago, Ellroy said it was ‘‘time to demythologize’’ the sixties ‘‘and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars.’’ Two thousand pages on, under a rain of emeralds, the reader will find himself, like the author, very much bigger than when he began.
Copyright © 2019 by James Ellroy; Introduction by Thomas Mallon. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.