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.


  1. I bought this one recently and I'm scared it will become a TBR. I have read a lot of dense stuff recently and I need a little break. I love Ellroy thought and your review not only makes me want to read American Tabloid, but The Big Nowhere also (my missing piece of the L.A Quartet). Good job.

  2. It may not be dense in the way you're thinking of it. Not dense like,say, Joyce. It's not really difficult to understand what is going on. It's just there IS a lot going on.