Sunday, April 17, 2011

American Tabloid - James Ellroy (+)

James Ellroy is a bit of a mixed bag.  I came to read him via the excellent film adaptation of  L.A. Confidential (oddly it is the only of his L.A.Quartet novels I have never read). His The Big Nowhere is a masterpiece. His White Jazz is nearly unreadable.  What makes him a mixed bag is that he's just so Ellroy.  If you've never read him though, that doesn't really help.  He has his schtick. It is his style, language, attitude.  The whole deal.  In an Ellroy novel, you're going to get staccato prose.  You're going to get characters referring to women as 'cooze', and a lot of racial slurs.  And your going to get this "look at me, I'm so cool" attitude from the authorial voice, that reminds this reader of Quentin Tarantino as a director.  It's all so Ellroy.

American Tabloid is a book I've picked up and put down at least three times over the last decade-plus.  It took reading in short 10-minute bursts during break at my new night-shift job to see it to its conclusion.  This manner of reading seemed to suit Ellroy's staccato prose. The book is a fictional account of the American underworld and its ties to the Kennedy assassination.  I am always fascinated by stories/documentaries about the JFK assassination.  So it comes as no surprise that I ended up loving American Tabloid.

The story follows the exploits of three unlikable characters.

Pete Bondurant - a 6'5" French-Canadian "gorilla", former LAPD cop, current P.I. who begins the book employed as the guy who scores Howard Hughes his heroin.

Ward Littell - an idealistic FBI man, stuck investigating Commies, when he'd rather go after the Mob

Kemper Boyd- a narcissistic FBI man, who manages to wiggle his way into three government jobs (FBI, CIA, Bobby Kennedy's Justice Dept.)

The plot that Ellroy tosses these three into is dense and huge.  And like L.A. Confidential (and unlike The Black Dahlia), the beauty is how Ellroy is able to keep this complex ball of yarn from unraveling and make it seem plausible.  Ellroy's fictional history is as believable as any Kennedy story you've heard, and Ellroy's prose stylings suit this story perfectly. I shutter to think how long this book would have been in the hands of a more descriptive writer.  The book has the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro, Bobby Kennedy's crusade against Jimmy Hoffa, the Kennedy election, the Bay of Pigs invasion, and, of course, the assassination of a President. All of it is coated with the grime of Ellroy's Underworld. All of it touched by the hands of his three anti-heroes.

It is a great book. Even has me considering The Cold Six Thousand next.  And I seldom read series books back to back. I still think Ellroy needs to ply his thesaurus and use "cooze" less often, though.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Veronika Decides to Die - Paolo Coelho

Oh, didactic fiction...

I've had this book for awhile.  I picked it up at the Big Ass Book Sale last year.  I've been interested in reading Coelho for sometime, but I kept reading mixed reviews.  Mostly people seemed to complain that he is too simple.  Not a problem for me.  I like, love even, simple stories.  I could probably spend a whole post on how simple stories are no easier to pull off then complex stories.  I also like simple, straight-forward tight prose.  I can't say that I've heard Coelho's prose called simple, but I can see it being labeled such. I had no problem with his prose.  The story, though?

It reads like a cheap self-help book disguised as fiction.  I like stories with a message, but I do want that message veiled by a good story.  In the case of Veronika Decides to Die, despite being billed a "Novel of Redemption", the theme is conformity/non-conformity.  It's really about learning to do your own thing without the restraint of societal norms.  I dig the message...not the delivery.  I suppose there's redemption, too.  But conformity rules the day.

Coelho was placed in a mental hospital when he was young, so he knows something of the workings of the setting in the novel -  Veronika is placed in a mental hospital after attempting suicide.  He also knows a great deal about struggling against conformity, as his own struggle with wanting to be a writer against his parents' wishes is what put him in the hospital.  I believe Coelho claims Veronika to be his most personal novel for those reasons.  And that may be why, despite its many shortcomings, the novel still managed to touch me.  Those places are few and far between, but they at least have me considering give Coelho another chance.  YEARS DOWN THE ROAD.