By Norman Rush
October 22, 2009
Blood's a Rover
by James Ellroy
Knopf, 640 pp., $28.95
James Ellroy's astonishing creation, the Underworld USA Trilogy, is
complete. Its concluding volume, Blood's a Rover, has just been
published. The three long thrillers that make up the trilogy
(American Tabloid, 1995; The Cold Six Thousand, 2001; Blood's a
Rover, 2009) present a brutal counterhistory of America in the 1960s
and 1970sthe assassinations, the social convulsions, the power-elite
plottingthrough the lives of invented second- and third-echelon
operatives in the great political crimes of the era. The trilogy is
biblical in scale, catholic in its borrowing from conspiracy
theories, absorbing to read, often awe-inspiring in the liberties
taken with standard fictional presentation, and, in its imperfections
and lapses, disconcerting.
Ellroy, who is in his early sixties, is the celebrated, prolific, and
popular author of a body of genre crime fiction, crime journalism,
and a forensic memoir dealing with his own dark family history. His
work has been made into movies and television shows, and widely
translated. There are Web sites devoted to Ellroy, and he connects
with his fans through Facebook.
The Underworld USA Trilogy is generally regarded as Ellroy's magnum
opus. It is unique in its ambitions, and proceeds at a level of art
distinctly above that attained in his famously lurid and violent but
more conventional books. It is a fiction unlike any other.
The Underworld USA Trilogy gives a literary answer to the question of
what it was that so deformed the history Americans traversed in the
1960s and 1970s. As Ellroy presents it, a constellation of
independent but collaborating power centers, pursuing sometimes
identical and sometimes antagonistic objectives, was responsible.
They include the secretive tycoon Howard Hughes, the Mafia, J. Edgar
Hoover and his FBI, Jimmy Hoffa and his corrupt associates, and a
disorganized but still potent consortium of KKK and other white
supremacist groups, as well as international narcotics producers.
Hoover is the sole unmoved mover. Howard Hughes is insane, Hoover is
getting there, and it is his strategies that dominate all. Hoover,
like the KKK, is phobic about blacks and Communists. The objectives
of the other players are largely pecuniary.
The forces in opposition to this network of villains include Martin
Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement,
an inchoate pro-Castro left afflicted by divisions over the question
of violence, and, later, a Black Power movement in which violence has
become accepted policy. Also in the opposition but compromised by
their family's power intrigues in the past, and by their own personal
weaknesses, are the Kennedy brothers.
Agents provocateurs abound, ancillary murders occur, people switch
sides, ghastly errors are made. This chaos of mismated plotting
yields the great assassinations of the period: John Fitzgerald
Kennedy, Robert Francis Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. (Cases have
been made for expanding this marquee death list to take in Malcolm X
and Walter Reuther.) Flowing from the assassinations are the race
riots, the destruction of the black nationalist movement, the
machinations of COINTELPRO, and the election of Richard Nixon,
pictured as a pawn of both Howard Hughes and the Mafia.
Ellroy, it has to be said, is fairly conventional in his selections
from the fantastic richness of available conspiracy theories, and the
ones he chooses, he trims up for his own purposes. The JFK hit is the
combined work of the Mob, rogue CIA, Cuban exiles. The RFK hit is
Mob. The MLK hit is FBI, Klan. Marilyn Monroe is left on the cutting
room floor. Oswald is only a dumb patsy. The Mafia does the lion's
share when it comes to organizing the murders. From the loose ends of
the Garrison investigation only the sinister Guy Bannister, an ex-FBI
agent in New Orleans, survives to play a role as the recruiter of Oswald.
Unde malum: Where does evil come from? In Ellroy's renderings, Hoover
and the Mafia bosses are the sources of evil most at issue. Our
understanding of the work of these central evildoers is reinforced by
constructed documentssupposed wiretap transcripts, confidential
memos, telexes, even journal entries. How close does the reader get
to the inner life of these devils (who are not accorded opportunities
to define their inner selves) through these devices, or via the
conversations they have with the main characters in each volume?
Hoover's obsession with homosexuality, his own included, is conveyed
pretty clearly, but surprisingly there is no reference to another
personal sensitivity of his: he was aware of rumors that he was of
mixed-race background and was enraged at any allusion to this
supposition. Ellroy's Hoover evinces a brittle nastiness, which is
widely understood to be true of him. The Mob guys have very good
lines, wit (much more wit than is evident in the real wiretap
transcripts that have been left to us), and pretty good English.
That's about as close as we get to their minds.
But Ellroy's idea of building, on the half-lives of secondary players
caught in the web spun by others, a cruelly resonant reconstruction
of a political hell is inspired. Other writers have worked in this
field, of course. I think of Richard Condon (Winter Kills) and Don
DeLillo (Libra). These are notable works, but they are limited to the
JFK assassination and are, in essence, whodunits focused on the
principals in that one case.
In American Tabloid, the first volume of the trilogy, the main
menthe three characters with their own points of vieware Kemper
Boyd and Ward Littell, both FBI-connected, and Pete Bondurant, an
exLAPD cop, now a freelance fixer and hoodlum working for the mob
and Howard Hughes. Only Bondurant is a congenital thug. The other two
have personal reasons (blackmail by Hoover, in one case) for staying
with the Bureau as it turns toward murder. The JFK hit happens, but sloppily.
Two of the JFK-kill conspirators (Littell and Bondurant) survive into
the second volume of the trilogy, The Cold Six Thousand. They, along
with a Las Vegas cop, Wayne Tedrow Jr., on detached duty, are
detailed to solidify the cover-up that followed the hit. They have a
list of incidental witnesses to aspects of the plot who must be
eliminated. Littell's formerly positive feelings toward Bobby Kennedy
have reversed into enmity: in researching the Mob, he has discovered
that Joe Kennedy Sr. was a charter founder of the Teamsters' Central
States Pension Fund, a primary cashbox for the Mob. A plot develops
to kill RFK: Littell's earlier pro-Kennedy feelings revive, but too
late. RFK is hit, ostensibly by a Mob patsy, Sirhan Sirhan.
Blood's a Rover follows Wayne Tedrow Jr., Dwight Holly (an FBI
"roving agent" with plenipotentiary powers), and Don Crutchfield, a
peeping Tom and private investigator with an insatiable curiosity
about the plots he brushes up against. J. Edgar Hoover, now in
serious mental decline, orders a final campaign against the black
nationalists. Plots, counterplots, and the search for the
perpetrators of an unsolved armored car heist intermingle.
Two female characters, women of the left, move into the foreground
and are entangled in relationships with Dwight Holly arising out of
his infiltration activities. Tedrow dies. Holly is shot by a rogue
cop. He is avenged by one of his lovers. The action hops jaggedly
around, from LA to Las Vegas to Santo Domingo to Miami. There is a
mordantly upbeat conclusion.
For those who want to read Blood's a Rover on its own, there is a
quick summary of the basic plotlines of the previous two books on
pages 1619. Blood's a Rover both clarifies and complicates the
question of what the trilogy project is really trying to say. But
before looking more fully at the book, I want to say something about
the genuinely remarkable manner in which this series is written. For
a time, the tag Avant-Pop was attached to a certain kind of
avant-garde writing, but that's not right for Ellroy. Nor is
Avant-Pulp. Whatever it should be called, the literary experience it
provides is unique.
James Ellroy's brand of extreme writing is fun to read. At its best,
it could be addictive. The stories are told in a uniform, crazed,
modern American vernacular, and with such breakneck speed, hairpin
plot turns, compression, and telescoping of events that the reader
needs to stop and rest from time to time. The standard noir subject
matter of killings, beatings, and acts of revenge is all here, but
the incidents are so closely packed and described with such loving
attention to the injuries suffered that it's hard not to feel that
some limit of what the reader can bear is being toyed with:
He shot them in the back at point-blank range. Small-bore exit
wounds the cleanup wouldn't be that big a deal....
Fulo smashed their teeth to powder. Pete burned their fingerprints
off on a hotplate.
Fulo dug the spent rounds out of the wall and flushed them down the
toilet. Pete quick-scorched the floor stainsspectrograph tests would
Fulo pulled down the living-room drapes and wrapped them around the
bodies. The exit wounds had congealedno blood seeped through.
In order to speed the flow of the prose, Ellroy tries almost
everything. He'll save two words by saying that a building is
"lake-close" rather than that it stood "close to the lake."
One-sentence paragraphs take over. So do sentence fragments and
sentences whose elements are broken up by slash marks. Dashes
proliferate. The past perfect tense seems to evaporate and is
replaced by the simple past tense to a degree that makes it difficult
to figure out when exactly something is happening.
The standard noir product is tense and terse and tough by nature, and
in fact the first volume reads like a supercharged variant of the
recognized detective thriller. But in The Cold Six Thousand, the
experiment is carried to new limits of charged compression:
Pete broke three C-notes. Pete glommed sixty five-spots.
He grabbed a scratch pad. He wrote down his phone number sixty
fucking times. He hit a liquor store. He bought sixty short dogs. He
grabbed his sap and drove to West Vegas.
He cruised in slow. He wore the sap. He held his automatic. He saw:
Dirt streets. Dirt yards. Dirt lots. Shack chateaus abundant.
Tar-paper pads with cinder-block siding. Beaucoup churches/one
mosque. ALLAH IS LORD! signs. Allah signs revised to JESUS!
Lots of street activity. Jigs cooking bar-b-que in fifty-gallon drums....
Shouts overlappedmore rebop/ more jive. Pete yelled. Pete displayed
charisma. Pete restored calm.
The last volume of the trilogy is toned down.
In each novel, Ellroy employs the free indirect mode (identified
third person) throughout. In each, there are three lead characters
and a point of view is locked to each one. But the narrative style
does not adapt to the various backgrounds and temperaments of these
characters. A shared voice is shouting the story in a racist,
homophobic, profane, utterly unchecked vocabulary. How can this be
right for all these characters? Who's telling this story? I kept
asking myself. The lead characters are various. Some of them are
colgrads, including a couple of lawyers and a Ph.D. chemist. Some
singularities surely ought to surface here and there. Why in each of
the different points of view is the southern regionalism "boocoo"
used for beaucoup? Why the flurries of French words and phrases? For
Christ sake, who is telling this story? I wanted to know. It's usual
for the omniscient observer/reporter to be neutral, "an ideal
observer." In the final volume, a partial rationale for the
point-of-view oddities is provided, but for me it didn't work. I set
my irritation to the side, though, and kept reading, going along.
Here's the overriding achievement of the Underworld USA Trilogy:
Ellroy elevates you to a fever-dream state. Once you have given
yourself to the story, decided to overlook certain obstacles to the
conspiracies and to forgive an occasional overreliance on coincidence
or investigative good luck, and gone along with his adventures in
prose, you feel yourself present for a time in an authentic and
palpable circle of hell.
Blood's a Rover starts out feeling very much as though it's cut from
the same cloth as the previous volumes, but there is a change: a
redemptive motif glimmers through all the blood. I had become
acclimated to an action environment that might well have been called
the Upper Depths, where lives predictably ended bleakly and horribly.
So far, the trilogy had been a straight chronicle of individual
failure. It was like life! Only the top malefactors of the piece get
what they thought they wanted, before coming to their own unpleasant
ends: Hoover, Hoffa, Hughes. So it goes.... We are all patsies,
ultimately, he seemed to be suggesting. And now, quite unexpectedly,
the shadow of redemption.
This is the set-up: the main charactersWayne Tedrow Jr. (Hughes,
Mob), Dwight Holly (FBI), and Don Crutchfield (two-bit PI)operate
circa 19681972 in orbits around various interesting projects. Hughes
wants to take over Las Vegas and the Mob wants to sell it to him and
secretly retain control of the profits through skimming. The Mob also
wants to establish a new offshore gambling mecca in the Dominican
Republic. Hoover is scheming to disable the post-MLK Black Power movement.
Turf wars rage over control of the international narcotics traffic
(the CIA is a chief combatant). Stirred in are a clutch of strictly
personal quests and vendettas, like finding a lost son, securing
decent girlfriends, and solving the mystery of a 1964 armored car
heist. The chief characters are heterosexual alpha males, strong,
resilient, and resourceful. They recover from beatings as quickly as
they throw off the effects of alcohol and drugs, and repeatedly
return to the fray. These attributes are of course standard for noir heroes.
New here is the late eruption of green shoots of conscience among the
characters. All three of Blood's a Rover 's lead players are emerging
from deep-right political conditioning. The growth of conscience is
uneven among them. Tedrow, for example, the parricide offspring of a
Klan/Mormon hate- merchant, arrives at the conclusion that he must
only kill criminal black people. He falls in love with a black woman,
the union-leader widow of a black preacher in whose death he is
implicated. Infiltration activities bring Dwight Holly into contact
with the first up-front, concrete representatives of the left: two
women, Karen Sifakis and Joan Rosen Klein. Nascent sympathies for
left causes begin to mess things up for Holly, and Crutchfield, too.
Joan Rosen Klein, described in a cover note by Ellroy to the advance
reader's edition of Blood's a Rover as his "greatest female
character: The Red Goddess Joan," is a sort of professional
revolutionary. She is, we are told, in her "early forties, [with]
dark gray streaked hair, glasses, a knife scar on one arm." She is
unattached, bisexual, and hot (so is Karen Sifakis). She has been
everywhere that counts, pursuing the revolution: Algeria, Cuba, the
Dominican Republic. According to the FBI dossier on Klein that we get
a look at, she has consorted with anarchists, Communists,
Trotskyists, the Weather Underground, followers of Daniel De
Leon...in short, everybody. She is attempting to bring white radical
groups into close supporting relationships with the black nationalist
movement, her candidate for the present vanguard force for the revolution.
Karen Sifakis, an itinerant college professor, a mother, married but
living only intermittently with her husband, is a comrade and friend
of Joan Klein. Sifakis is a little younger. Dwight Holly's
infiltration program involves trading favors (for example, cleaning
up FBI files that might be damaging to friends of either woman) for
information on pending criminal activities by two emerging black
nationalist groups. Karen Sifakis's Quaker-tinged revolutionism
permits only property destruction. Not so Red Goddess Joan's
ideology. In nineteenth-century French radical circles, she would
have been labeled a catastrophard.
Joan Klein and Dwight Holly cooperate with each other because they
share an interest in disseminating heroin. Holly, under Hoover's
instruction, is moving heroin to the black nationalists so that they
will criminally self-destruct. Klein also wants heroin passed to
them. She feels that establishing a heroin culture in the black
community will somehow result in successful revolutionary chaos. This
sounds amazingly dumb, but really it's what she wants. From her journal:
THE FBI WANTS THE BTA AND MMFL TO MOVE HEROIN. THEY BELIEVE THAT IT
WILL EXPOSE BLACK NATIONALISM AS INHERENTLY CRIMINAL AND REVEAL BLACK
PEOPLE AT LARGE TO BE INHERENTLY DEPRAVED. THE FBI'S SHORT-TERM GOAL
IS A SEDATED BLACK POPULACE; ITS LONG-TERM IS THE PERPETUATION OF
RACIAL SERVITUDE. I WANT THE BTA AND MMLF TO MOVE HEROIN. I WILL RISK
THE SHORT-TERM PROBABILITY OF SQUALOR IN FERVENT HOPE THAT THE
SUSTAINED DEPRAVITY OF HEROIN WILL LEAD TO A RICH EXPRESSION OF
RACIAL IDENTITY AND ULTIMATELY TO POLITICAL REVELATION AND REVOLT.
Dwight Holly falls in love with Klein and Sifakis at the same time.
The melodrama continues as before killings, torture, dismemberments,
betrayals, bombings, cover-ups. Sympathy for Hoover's victims grows
in Tedrow: "I'm going Red," he thinks. Holly finds his new sympathies
taking him dangerously close to defection just before he is shot to
death (by one of his two lovers). At the end, the left wins a kind of
hobbled, partial victory. Large helpings of ill-gotten Mob gains
circuitously wind up in the hands of Klein and Sifakis. The
presumptive onward careers of these women are intended to carry a
message of hope. In fairness to readers I won't say more about this,
but the last couple of pages of Cormac McCarthy's post-Armageddon
novel, The Road, came to mind.
And finally, the metamorphosis of PI Don Crutchfield points toward
hopeful things. He becomes a documentarian of the troubles. He
compiles a detailed indictment that, when released into the world,
will forever shame the guilty. Luckily, he becomes rich as the owner
of a large detective agency specializing in validating (or not)
allegations of scandal for the tabloid press. He develops an
avocation as a finder of lost persons for the poor and deserving. His
services for this work are provided gratis.
Incisive portraiture is not Ellroy's strong suit. Characters often
act impetuously and seem confoundingly immune to sensing the
inevitable consequences of things they do. The representatives of the
rogue CIA are so weakly sketched as to be almost spectral. The most
strongly sketched characters are the Mob bosses, but there's nobody
in these books anywhere near as deeply conceived as, for example,
Norman Mailer's James Jesus Angleton in Harlot's Ghost.
As for Ellroy's portrayal of the left, it suffers from an
impressionistic lack of specificity, and when it essays specificity
it is often goofy. For example, the late Bayard Rustin, the heroic
pacifist civil rights veteran, is portrayed as a witting receiver of
Mob money to support the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and the
Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The transaction is arranged
by the FBI for the purpose of gaining potential blackmail leverage.
This is a notional, not to mention insane, bit of casting. (And
friends of Bayard, myself included, are still around. His FBI files,
which have been released, contain nothing that would make this
conceit remotely thinkable.)
Finally, I decided I could live with this as a bit of clumsy
synecdoche that worked well enough for the novel's needs. And in
truth, there was plenty of pure adventurism afoot in the left, as
nobody can deny.
The left in which Red Goddess Joan and Karen Sifakis circulate is an
odd environment, one without papers, parties, publications, leaders
and their fandoms, or intraleft polemics. The only left thinker
alluded to is "Franz" Fanon (his first name, Frantz, routinely
misspelled). It's a red blur inhabited by would-be citizens of
societies in the mold of Fidel Castro's brave little police state.
Even in this romantically adventurist realm, there are no Maoists around.
The out-of-left-field rigmarole around Bayard Rustin is not
pernicious so much as it is a malfunction of a device the author uses
to jazz up the continuity, by giving cameo parts to celebrities of
the periodin hopes that certain private activities of theirs, real
or imagined, will tend to intrigue the reader. John Wayne was a
cross-dresser, Sonny Liston was an enforcer for petty hoodlums, Sal
Mineo was a murderer, Burt Lancaster was a closeted bisexual....
"Anything else I should know?
"...Johnnie Ray sucks dick in Ferndale Park...Lana Turner dives dark
sisters ca 1954...Liberace's all-boy cathouse...Scopophile Danny
Thomas, nympho Peggy Lee...Muff-diver Sol Hurok...Masochist...James
Dean"The Human Ashtray"...Ava Gardner and Redd Fox. Jean Seberg and
half the Black Panthers...."
This sort of thing catches a reader's attention. What Ellroy has done
is take on-the-record allegations (stuff from the back files of
Confidential magazine and items from sensational postmortem star
biographies), tart everything up, and, when it suits the story, invent.
The Underworld USA Trilogy is a gizmo that works to induct the reader
into a paranoid fantasy state, a temporary one reinforced powerfully
by its points of contact with terrible events whose complete
explication has not been fully achieved, at least in the judgment of
a great many people. Large percentages of the public believe that the
great assassinations of the 1960s were the result of machinations
involving unknown groups and individuals. The residual popular
skepticism about official history in this area is a resource that has
been brilliantly exploited in this work. (Whether James Ellroy is
personally attached to any of the reigning conspiracy theories one
doesn't know, and it doesn't matter.)
I read the trilogy with a distinct, strong, and rather obscure
pleasure, asking myself why, as I went along. I thought at first it
must be related to why I like the Parker crime novels by Donald
Westlake, which also feature an utterly conscienceless but superbly
competent professional thief and killer and are also written in a
minimalist stylethough nothing like as extreme in its minimalism as
Ellroy's novels. I wondered if it must be tonic in some way to slip
yourself into the personae of fearless sociopaths and then come out
of it. But the Parker novels are short, like spasms, requiring
nothing like the commitment that Ellroy demands. And the Parker
stories are not concerned with large political questions. Reading
Ellroy is not like reading Westlake or anyone else.
The Underground USA Trilogy is a major achievement in high parody.
The peak of that achievement is reached in volume two, The Cold Six
Thousand, which can fry your brain. There are plenty of secondary
pleasures to be had in bumping through the trilogy's manic rendering
of the conspiracy topos, like watching the noir genre pushed way
beyond its customary uses. Ellroy, in this huge endeavor, has found
the right medium in which to tell the story of our recent time of
troubles. That time was tragic, it hurts to think about it, and the
toxins produced by the great assassinations are still draining into
American life. It's possible that it takes an obscene, raw, mighty
parodic work like the Underground USA Trilogy to bring that time into