Tuesday, October 20, 2009

James Ellroy and the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy



Litquake is a week-long party for writers and their admirers in San Francisco, and this year was their tenth anniversary, complete with a free, fat program listing their gazillion sponsors and book readings by writers throughout the city.



Last Thursday evening, the Books Inc. branch on Market Street in the Castro was host to James Ellroy, the 61-year-old Los Angeles crime novelist who has been getting more ambitious with each book. The reading in a small room in the back of the hot, muggy store was packed, and it didn't help when the young store manager insisted on reciting to us all the upcoming readings in a voice so monotone and devoid of emotion that it was almost comical.



He was finally replaced by James Ellroy whose public persona is completely over the top. After a diatribe against the "Internet Invaders who are making your brains about this small," he started on a paean to the wonder that is Alfred P. Knopf, his publishers, and the Borzoi book label. "I've written some pretty good books, some good books, some great books, some near-masterpieces, some masterpieces, and now I have outdone myself with my greatest masterpiece, 'Blood's a Rover.' Buy it."



After a tumultuous life growing up in Los Angeles, including his mother being murdered when he was ten, Ellroy stopped drinking and pill popping and became a golf caddy writing crime novels in his afternoons and evenings. He first connected with a mass audience with "The Black Dahlia," an historical metafiction about a real crime with the addition of fictional characters. He continued in the same vein with "The Big Nowhere," "L.A. Confidential," and "White Jazz," which was a trilogy about institutional corruption in Los Angeles that featured serial killers, a Walt Disney character, Communist Jewish screenwriters, and the fabulously corrupt Captain Dudley Liam Smith of the LAPD.



In 1995, "American Tabloid" was published, a shocking history of the United States in the late 1950s and early 1960s culminating in JFK's assassination. One of the book's many contentions is that Joseph Kennedy, along with Meyer Lansky, was one of the original organizers of Organized Crime as we know it, stemming from Prohibition days. When his son Bobby decided to go after gangsters as Attorney General, Joseph's old partners in crime weren't amused. By the final pages, there isn't ONE plot in motion to kill JFK, but half a dozen.

The protagonists are middle-level henchmen of various powerful nasties such as Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy clan, the CIA, and their pornographically violent adventures through the 1960s in the United States are literally mind-blowing. Not only has Ellroy done his research, paying for a team of assistants according to his own account, but his evocation of the nastier underbelly of recent political history feels very dark, funny, and right.



"American Tabloid" was followed six years later by "The Cold Six Thousand," which spans the time between JFK's assassination and the twin murders of RFK and Martin Luther King, Jr. The language and the situations become even more stacatto and extreme than the earlier book, involving many of the same characters. Eight years later, thanks in part to a breakup with a San Francisco woman he fell in love with, Ellroy has finally finished the trilogy with "Blood's a Rover," published last month. According to one review, the novel takes us into the heart of Nixonian hell. I'll wait until I'm feeling stronger to begin reading.

7 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

I've read L.A. Confidential and seen the film a couple of times each; they're pretty great. I just read White Jazz a couple of weeks ago and it was like seeing a performance of Salome. It made me want to go wash.

sfmike said...

Dear Lisa: It's definitely time you started on "American Tabloid." They really are ambitious books, and change the way you look at history and present-day corruption, which is just a continuation of the same old story.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Maybe, but not for a while!

janinsanfran said...

Yikes -- and I thought Nixonland was heavy ...

Kimo C said...

sfmike - thanks for introducing me to Ellroy a few years ago - when I saw he was back in town for Litquake, I wondered if you would make the trek...

Richard said...

..did anyone notice that in Norman Rush's review of Blood's a Rover in The New York Review of Books (issue of Oct. 22) he referred to "Lloyd Litell" as one of the three main characters in American Tabloid?....the correction to "Ward" appears in the web version of the article....sheesh...are they getting sloppy at the NYRB?...

Richard said...

..yikes... "Littell" should have a double "t" I think.... guess I shouldn't be grousing about about editorial sloppiness...