Low Lifes

American Tabloid

by James Ellroy
Knopf, 576 pp., $25.00

James Ellroy
James Ellroy; drawing by David Levine

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…

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