AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy

A question. Are reviewers bound by some code of ethics to be fair and balanced in the reviews they write? Are we expected to use make-no-sense, BS terms like “pulse-pounding,” and, “non-stop thrill ride?” Can we break it down and get real for a minute? I am absolutely stupid for this book. I’ve read it multiple times. I buy copies for my friends. Once, I bought a copy for a friend who told me he hadn’t started reading it yet because he was catching up on episodes of Gossip Girl. I took the book and beat him unconscious. I was in prison for eight months**. So yes, I like the book. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself. But if you haven’t started reading it yet because you’re catching up on episodes of Gossip Girl, please, keep it to yourself. My legal defense fund will thank you. But I digress…

“America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.”

Thus begins James Ellroy’s epic, fourteen-years-in-the-making Underworld U.S.A. trilogy. Ellroy, known as the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction and arguably one of the world’s greatest living writers, had the idea after reading Libra, Don DeLillo’s fictional account of Lee Harvey Oswald and the JFK assassination. After reading it Ellroy told himself he would never be able to write anything comparable. Then the idea occurred to him to write a book that didn’t focus exclusively on the assassination. As he put it…

Wait a minute. I can write an epic in which the assassination is only one crime in a long series of crimes. I can write a novel of collusion about the unsung leg breakers of history. I can do a tabloid sewer crawl through the private nightmares of public policy.

Tabloid begins in 1958. You’ve got Kemper Boyd, an FBI agent recruited by J. Edgar Hoover to spy on the Kennedys, Ward J. Littel, Kemper’s protΓ©gΓ© who’s got a bent for Robert Kennedy and the Mafia, and Big Pete Bondurant, bagman for Howard Hughes, shakedown artist, and all-around underworld handyman. Ellroy’s protagonists are backdropped by a large cast of characters, both real and fictional. You’ve got politicians, rouge CIA agents, mob bosses, assorted gangsters, crooked cops, Cuban refugees, and other various and sundry lowlifes. They take you on a rocket ride through RFK’s war on the mafia, the rise of Castro, the JFK election, the Bay of Pigs, and Dallas, 1963. It’s large-scale political noir, and Ellroy makes it completely his own.

I’m not sure exactly what it is that Ellroy taps into in order to write the way he does, but whatever it is, I really do wish I could cut it up and snort it. The prose is tight and telegraphic. You feel like the story is being painted in front of you. Ellroy’s characters never feel like throwaways. They all have their own distinct voice. And while it’s great fun to see how seamlessly Ellroy has inserted his characters into history, the best part is watching them interact with each other.

A short note about the violence. Holy hell, are these books violent! Tabloid was originally recommended to me by a friend after I told him, “I really liked Pulp Fiction. Recommend me something to read.” He told me about one particular scene in which Pete B. is asked to get rid of a Teamster who’d been caught snitching on Jimmy Hoffa. After he takes him out, Pete stuffs his mouth full of shotgun shells, duct-tapes it shut and lights him on fire. I stopped at Barnes & Nobel on the way home from work. As Mark Sanford might say, it was a love story. But yeah, these books are not for the faint-of-heart.

The word masterpiece gets thrown around a lot these days, but this is really what Ellroy has created here. American Tabloid is a rough story. It’s a dirty story. It’s distinctly American. Ellroy’s unsung leg breakers lie, cheat, kill, and rip their way through history. Dirty politics, greed, communist collusion, and unholy alliances have put them all on a collision course with November 22, 1963. You, the hapless reader, find yourself not able to look away. It’s paranoid. It’s obsessive. It draws you in. Answer its call. In the words of Ellroy, grab its greatness.

Stay tuned. We’ll soon be posting our reviews of books 2 and 3 in the trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand and the soon-to-be-released Blood’s a Rover. In the meantime, buy American Tabloid from amazon.com.

**I wasn’t really in prison. My lawyer got me off with community service.

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5 responses to “AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy

  1. Well stated.

    My favorite sentence in ‘American Tabloid’ . . . one that I think sums up much of what Ellroy is doing in the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy:

    “Ava Gardner looked smaller than life.”

  2. This was the book that got me back into reading. I’ve read all of his books and I just love the way he writes. I’m upset that I loaned out my original hardcover and haven’t been able to find a replacement.
    I read that Bruce Willis had bought the rights some years back, but haven’t heard anything recently.

  3. The rights to American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand were bought by Tom Hanks’ production company Playtone. Not sure if they’re being developed as a miniseries or TV show though. Kirk Ellis, who wrote John Adams, is writing the script.

  4. At the Sacramento Bee Book Club yesterday, Author Barry Eisler mentioned James Ellroy as a favorite author and in particular his “American Tabloid” as a favorite thriller. I was curious about the book and I hope to read it soon.

  5. i’ve been an Ellroy fan since the ’80s, and have sweated out waiting for each one of his books– his evolution as one of the true Merkin literary voices has been wonderful to watch, as has his style.
    His LA quartet is well worth reading again in sequence– and as a prelude to a reread of the Underworld Trilogy as some characters are long term denizens of his world.
    i await the film versions of the Underworld Trilogy, and am glad that it is in hte hands of Hanks as he tends to make great work from great work.

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