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Low Lifes

American Tabloid

by James Ellroy
Knopf, 576 pp., $25.00

James Ellroy is a crime writer of unusual range and ambition. Actually, to call him a crime writer is perhaps to take hold of the wrong end of the stick; for Ellroy, crime is an underlying reality, not an exceptional circumstance. He views the history of the United States in the twentieth century as something like an extended caper novel—“the story of bad white men,” as he has put it1—and he clearly intends to be the Balzac of this epic.

He has gradually laid its ground in his eleven previous books. Each of his novels begins with an outrage and ends in a maze. Individual faits divers point to serial killings, lead to cover-ups, connect to deals, plots, shifting cabals, double-, triple-, and quadruple-crosses, huge extortion conspiracies, herculean black-bag operations, all of which feed into a pestilential corruption that blankets entire cities and offers no escape. His Los Angeles tetralogy—The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L. A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992)—sweeps across the terrain of that city between 1946 and 1958, assembling a genealogy of sadism and greed that runs through the entire society, its cast a human bestiary that excludes only squares.

His newest novel, American Tabloid, picks up the story in Los Angeles in 1958, but goes nationwide within pages. Brief appearances by Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, and J. Edgar Hoover and evocations of the Cuban revolution and the McClellan Committee outline the book’s trajectory: we are entering the swamp of correspondences that will lead up to the Kennedy assassination. To which one’s response may be: Not again! The speculative industry devoted to the JFK assassination, frantic in the 1970s, dormant through much of the 1980s, has reawakened of late. King-size, putatively conclusive themes have marched through publishers’ catalogs in recent seasons, while the underground of speck analyses and wild schemes has gotten a new life on the Internet. (And Norman Mailer is weighing in with Oswald’s Tale. See page 52.) Much of this revival of interest can be attributed to the combined effect of Don DeLillo’s novel Libra (1988) and Oliver Stone’s film JFK (1991), of which the latter in particular generated an entire spin-off industry of rebuttals and defenses. But while these two works overlap in their concerns and advance similarly conspiratorial explanations, their methods, approaches, and conclusions could hardly be more different.

Stone’s movie, with its dizzying cavalcade of quick cuts and mismatched film stocks, all but turns the story into science fiction. Our hero is New Orleans DA Jim Garrison, reconfigured as some kind of Frank Capra cartoon of the honest dullard; nearly everybody else is a tentacled monster. But Lee Harvey Oswald, Jack Ruby, and the Crescent City illuminati led by Clay Shaw turn out to be expendable stooges deployed by malign forces within the military and CIA who want to knock off Kennedy in part because of his alleged intention to withdraw from Vietnam—this is a well-known fixation of Stone’s. DeLillo’s book, on the other hand, concentrates on Oswald and penetrates his soul, finding a mire of colliding purposes. The attendant population of spooks and mobsters is revealed as equally human and equally confused and the assassination happens at the point of intersection of various crude plots. Libra is a sustained interrogation of how history happens. His answer seems to be: through muddle and chance.

However large their differences, the presence on the scene of two such ambitious treatments of one topic would, you might think, discourage any other attempts for at least a decade or so. In Ellroy’s case, however, such logic does not carry much weight. The period just happens to be next in his chronological schema. And anyway, his is not the same old song: the name Lee Harvey Oswald, for example, does not appear within it, and the rumor of the JFK-Marilyn Monroe liaison is depicted as a deliberate FBI fabrication. Popular preoccupations aside, the subject does seem to be a natural for Ellroy. The swarming lowlife, the spectral highlife, and multiple crosses, the shotgun alliances, the compulsions and hidden vices and dubious forms of entertainment—all the primary constituents of his earlier novels can be found in abundance on the real-life fringes of the Kennedy drama, which has become, however you look at it, one of the keystones in the history of bad white men in America. You do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to acknowledge the astonishing pileup of undesirables at every juncture of the story: the Mafiosi, spies, rogue cops, Cuban exile fanatics, right-wing maniacs, stool pigeons, police groupies, drug dealers, second-rate burglars, voyeurs, Ku Kluxers, labor thugs, and miscellaneous riffraff—all are part of the record.

The Kennedy assassination is a mystery with just too many suspects. Were it the subject of a novel hatched in an earlier era, Occam’s razor would dictate the simplest solution. Lord Peter Wimsey would undoubtedly dredge up an isolated weirdo with a sliver of opportunity, and the thousand intertwining plots would be written off as red herrings. Nowadays, whatever the truth of the matter may be (and we’ll probably never know), the simplest solution is no longer emotionally satisfying. Everything we know about the world militates against it. The concepts of indeterminacy and chaos have filtered down to us from the higher sciences to confirm our nagging suspicions. We no longer believe that World War I was started by Gavrilo Princip, or that the United States selflessly liberated Cuba from the Spanish yoke, or for that matter that John Kennedy was a philosopher-king cut down before he could finish reforming the nation. Complexity and contradiction rule, and few novelists are as much at home with this principle as Ellroy.

Accordingly, American Tabloid is virtually impossible to summarize. A profile of Ellroy published a few years ago2 mentioned his plot outlines: The Black Dahlia‘s ran to 142 pages (the book itself is 358 pages long in paperback) and that of L. A. Confidential to 211 (the paperback has 496). At the time, he had just finished the outline for Tabloid; it came to 345 pages, while the book itself runs a mere 576. This is reminiscent of Borges’s famous map which is the same size as the country it describes. Actually, once one has read the book it may be difficult to imagine what he could have added to flesh out the skeleton, since just about everything is plot. No space is squandered on scene-setting or atmosphere, and adjectives and adverbs are kept to a strict minimum. The pitch is headlong.

There are three main characters: Pete Bondurant, who at the beginning is a factotum for Howard Hughes and a free-lance extortionist on the side; Kemper Boyd, an FBI agent recruited by Hoover to infiltrate the Kennedy brothers’ McClellan Committee on labor rackets; and Ward Littell, also of the FBI but distrusted by the director and consigned to monitoring the activities of pathetically ineffectual old Communists in Chicago. Boyd and Littell are old friends, and both are somewhat acquainted in a mostly unfriendly way with Bondurant. By the time the book ends, the three will have allied with and against each other in every possible combination.

Jimmy Hoffa, Sam Giancana, Santo Traficante, Carlos Marcello, and John and Robert Kennedy enter the book as major characters, as do a passel of Cuban exiles, Klansmen, and variegated fascists (intersections with historical personages are, for obvious reasons, restricted to the safely dead). Also threading through the plot are Lenny Sands, a comedian who works Teamster conventions and the like, specializing in squirm-inducing fag jokes, but who is secretly himself a tortured homosexual, and Laura Hughes, a banished illegitimate daughter of Joseph Kennedy, Sr., and Gloria Swanson. Women in general are few, but then the principal milieux—exile training camps, Mafia safe houses, Klan shooting ranges, and the like—have never had a strong female presence. The latter two characters are ambiguous at best, while the rest of the dramatis personae are or become amoral. This does not prevent the three protagonists, at least, from being sympathetic overall.

Significantly, the only paragon of rectitude in sight is Robert Kennedy, and he is by far the least likable of the book’s major characters; he is a prig and a stiff. At least the mobsters are assigned recognizably human traits, like humor (the Ku Kluxers, on the other hand, are clearly not human at all). The cast is crowded, but the characters are sufficiently individuated that there is no confusion for the reader. What does produce confusion is the endless flux of alliances and betrayals, which at times makes one wish for a flow chart. Kemper Boyd, in particular, moves from double agent to triple agent to quadruple agent and perhaps more, with his sympathies distributed as percentage points among a host of competing or inimical groupings.

The major forces are: Hoffa and his Teamsters, Hoover (who with a single exception appears only as a disembodied voice), the Kennedy brothers (although divergences between them eventually occur), the anti-Castro Cubans (although some of them work more than one side of the street), and the Mafia (although they at times split up into warring factions). Howard Hughes, only glimpsed briefly in the flesh (as it were), constitutes yet another, albeit distant, force, and in addition all three protagonists periodically break away from everyone else to act on their own initiative. Curiously, the CIA itself is barely represented—a single liaison officer to the Cuban exiles stands in. The action includes the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, seen from a distance, and various smaller-scale incursions against Cuba, as well as riots, gun battles, break-ins, cross-burnings, blackmail setups, torture, booze-fests, and hundreds of variously gruesome murders. There is a great deal of dialogue, much of it prevarication or dissembling when it is not pure, spitting rage. Although approximately seven eighths of the characters at one time or another express their desire either to kill John Kennedy or to have somebody else do it for them, the event itself takes place outside the book’s margin.

Ellroy may not waste much time on atmospheric description, but he has a flair for conveying atmosphere anyway. He has a particular feeling for the dank sleaze of the Fifties and early Sixties, and seems to enjoy himself most when depicting two-bit lounge acts or writing in the cloyingly alliterative jive-turkey style of Hush-Hush, the (fictional) Hughes-bankrolled scandal sheet he has carried over from his previous novels:

Item: Raul “The Tool” Castro has flamboyantly flooded Florida with hellishly horrific, hophead-hazarding amounts of the demonically deadly “Big H”: Heroin!!! He’s bent on needle-notching vast legions of Cuban immigrant slaves: zorched-out zombies to spread the cancerous Castro gospel between bouts of Heroin-hiatused, junkie-junketeered euphoria!

Of course, Ellroy’s own style goes a long way toward supplying the ambience of the late 1950s and the early 1960s, since it seems derived in equal parts from the action pulps and amphetamine-driven disk jockeys of the period:

Lenny preened and smacked kisses. The junketeers ate it up—go Lenny, go, go, go.

Lenny hated fags. Lenny ate fags like Godzilla ate Tokyo. Lenny ate up the Lucky Nugget Lounge.

Pete watched. Lenny spritzed shtick—fag Castro gropes fag Ike at the All-Fag Summit!!!!

or:

Dracula loved his Mormons. Boss Mormon Duane Spurgeon glommed some dope contacts. Drac could now fly Narco Airlines without a Pete Bondurant ticket.

The good news: Spurgeon had cancer. The bad news: Hughes scuttled Hush-Hush.

Except for the dialogue and interpolated documents, the book is entirely written in brief declarative sentences, active voice. Ellroy will never write a long sentence when four or five short ones will do, and he is especially fond of chains of hammerlike sentences headed by identical subjects:

Littell remembered making threats.

Littell remembered his final pitch: YOU’RE GOING TO TALK TO GIANCANA WIRED UP.

He remembered a tire iron.

He remembered blood on the dashboard.

He remembered begging God PLEASE DON’T LET ME KILL HIM.

Actually, American Tabloid‘s style may represent some kind of concession to the square reading public. In his last novel, White Jazz, he eliminated every unnecessary word and concocted a potent be-bop telegraphese:

I questioned Western Avenue whores, three nights’ worth—no Lucille pic IDs. I checked with the 77th Squad—still no locate on the peeper complaints. I peeped myself: the Kafesjian pad, carradio jazz to kill boredom. Two nights—family brawls; one night, Lucille alone—a window striptease—the radio pulsed to her movements. Three nights total, no other watchers—make me the only voyeur. That Big Instinct confirmed: prowler/peeper/B&E man—all one man.3

In both cases, Ellroy has taken the classic hard-boiled style, derived from Hemingway by Hammett, poeticized by Chandler, filtered by Cain, worried to pieces by Goodis, smeared by Spillane, and further reduced it, as stock is reduced by boiling. The style was hatched to convey tough action to semi-literate readers by the most direct means, grew baroque in some hands, was glommed by primitives whose native language it resembled, and now, with Ellroy, has reached an extreme of minimalist compression. It still makes for fast reading and a clear narrative, but its density and percussiveness make it hard to imagine in the pages of some pulp rag for men.

The prose’s staccato insistence and the book’s time-frame also act in concert subliminally to evoke the movies of the period. The spectacle of nerveless bad white men in Italian-cut sharkskin suits fitting silencers to gun barrels, moving impassively through go-go lounges packed with frantic revelers, consuming entire trays of high-balls without noticeable effect, responding bluntly to the writhing showgirls draped around their necks, efficiently dispatching whole conference rooms of bald-headed honchos—the book retrieves such images from the memory bank, from movies like Samuel Fuller’s Underworld U.S.A. (1960), William Asher’s Johnny Cool (1963), and Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964). It is not hard to imagine, say, Cliff Robertson as Boyd, Henry Silva as Bondurant, Frank Gorshin as Littell, Joey Bishop as Lenny, Eli Wallach as Jimmy Hoffa, Ronald Reagan as Sam Giancana…In action scenes and conversations, Ellroy’s foreshortened sentences in fact behave like units of film, quick cuts worked up into montages; dialogues are never twoshots but always interleaved close-ups. Even so, this and most of Ellroy’s other books stand little chance of ever being adapted for the screen—they are too crowded, too complex, too obsessive, and oddly enough too brutal.

American Tabloid is the least personal of Ellroy’s books. His Los Angeles novels and the earlier trilogy devoted to the bent cop Lloyd Hopkins (Blood on the Moon and Because the Night, both 1984, and Suicide Hill, 1986) are very clearly the products of a sustained rage against an entire way of life. The Black Dahlia is most explicitly so. It is his extrapolation of the unsolved Black Dahlia murder case of 1947, “Black Dahlia” being the nickname of a B-girl and aspiring actress, Elizabeth Short, whose horrifically mutilated corpse was found in a Los Angeles vacant lot. In 1958, Ellroy’s sexually restless mother was found naked and strangled in another vacant lot in that city. He dedicated his novel: “Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood.” The book is wonderfully constructed and expertly paced, but at the same time it is completely over the top. Every horror merely serves to conceal greater horrors; questions apparently resolved get reopened again and again; the villains turn out to be stupefyingly depraved, and each is accorded an apocalyptic death. In this and other books, it is as if Ellroy were tracking down every suspect in his mother’s (also unsolved) murder, in fact every member of every class that could have committed that murder, and inflicting upon them the most protracted and painful vengeance. His “bad white men” are his acknowledged comrades, and they are also his mother’s killers. One does not have to know the facts of Ellroy’s life to sense that a raw wound is somewhat latent in his work. It is hard to think of another crime writer whose books are so obsessively driven; even the work of Jim Thompson seems dispassionate by contrast. (Ellroy recently announced that he is working with a retired LA County homicide detective to solve his mother’s murder. The results will appear in his next book, an autobiographical work to be called My Dark Places.)

And Ellroy is always in some measure implicating himself. His heroes are nearly as twisted as his villains, only distinguished by their mission of vengeance. In American Tabloid, each character is granted one dispensation: Boyd believes in racial equality, Littell believes in justice (but Jesuitically and with increasing cynicism), and Bondurant believes in romantic love (but not without an extortion angle). Robert Kennedy may also have a mission, but, Ellroy implies, it is unearned, therefore rigid, and therefore as good as false.

Ellroy renders convincing Kennedys—Jack Kennedy is an agreeably corrupt playboy who is safe so long as he is floated by his father, but fatally messes up when left to his own devices. Nevertheless, they do not possess half the vitality of his obscure lowlifes. This may be partly a matter of class background—they are foreigners in Ellroy’s world of self-made shitheels—but it may also be that Ellroy feels hemmed in by documented history, unable to cut loose into pure delirium. American Tabloid is as bloody as any of Ellroy’s other books, but it somehow feels more restrained, because its conclusion is foregone. Ellroy at full throttle, as in his LA novels, achieves a lurid phantasmagoria that is genuinely, frighteningly crazy. The reader stares into the abyss, and the abyss stares back.

If Ellroy is planning to go forward with his project of reimagining twentieth-century American history, he may simply have to rewrite that history wholesale and not worry about forcing his vision to fit known facts. He does, in any case, have a potent formula for serving up his vision. It is a marriage of two genres: the noir, in which actions are dictated by undead evil from the past, and the caper novel, in which bad people assemble to carve up whatever pie is at hand. Call them the crime-fiction translations of religion and capitalism—these two concepts, superimposed, can account for almost everything we think of as modern history. With this project, Ellroy may yet prove that “crime fiction” is a euphemism for the story of power, its acquisition and use.

  1. 1

    In “Doctor Noir,” by Martin Kihn, New York, August 24, 1992.

  2. 2

    Martin Kihn, “Doctor Noir,” p. 116.

  3. 3

    White Jazz (Knopf, 1992).

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