Monday, May 4, 2009

Book Review: American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I came across James Ellroy by chance several years ago. I was on my way to a beach holiday and needed reading material. The movie LA Confidential was out in theatres. Somebody had recommended that I see it, knowing that I loved Raymond Chandler and the noir genre. At the bookstore, I saw the 500 page paperback, that the movie was based on and I had never heard of the author. I bought it, thinking it might be something I would enjoy. Later, sipping a few beers on the beach, I realized I had something better, much better, than Chandler. I was enraptured. I became a huge Ellroy fan and have since read every book he has published.

Blood's A Rover the long awaited third and final book of James Ellroy’s Underworld Trilogy is due out this year. Eager with anticipation, I decided to re-read American Tabloid, the first of the series.

Here’s some of the things we know about the late 50’s, early 60’s America: There was extreme corruption involving the mafia, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the CIA lead invasion of the Bay of Pigs, Las Vegas casinos, mob electioneering for JFK in the 1960 election, and Jimmy Hoffa’s oversight of the Teamster’s Pension Fund, to name a few. Also you had a reckless president who had liaisons with countless number of women of questionable backgrounds, and whose brother, Bobby was Attorney General of the US and was bent on going after mafia kingpins. In Los Angeles, lived the world’s richest man: the drug addicted, hermit Howard Hughes and everybody wanted a piece of his money. Rich material you would think? What writer would have the nerve to tackle it, and thread it all together as historical fiction? Ellroy steps up to the plate in American Tabloid and hits the ball over the fence and out of the stadium itself. This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel.

As Ellroy stated, in an interview about his work:

I like the idea that there is this human infrastructure to American history, and that lots of big historical events couldn’t have happened without these leg-breakers that I write about doing violent things in the background. That’s what I set out to write—the stories of the men and women behind the scenes who did the dirty work of American power.
The main characters are the leg breakers. Pete Bondurant: Physically massive, French-Canadian born, ex-US marine, ex-cop, dope runner, extortionist, black-mailer, paid hit-man. (Big Pete also appears in two other Ellroy novels, and I feel like I personally know him. He’s a good friend of mine and I root for him with all my heart, even though, you know, he’s a murderer. I’ve heard that the rights of the book have been sold as a potential HBO mini series, funded by Tom Hanks’ group. If so, for the love of God, cast the right person for Pete.) The other main characters are: Kemper Boyd, Yale educated, FBI lawyer spying on the Kennedys for Hoover. Ward Littlel, educated by the Jesuits, FBI black-bag man, determined to do real police work for justice but comes up against the cynical Hoover and his own crushing alcoholism.

Playboy Magazine ranked American Tabloid as a top twenty Book that Every Guy Should Read. Meaning there is violence, politically incorrect humor, gangsters, politics, war, hookers, drugs, booze, gambling, guns, tabloid press, etc. etc. Indeed it is great that way. However, do not underestimate it as mere pulp, this is a work of intricate genius. The events, and the legends of the day populate the plot: Hoover, Hoffa, Hughes, the Kennedys, Sam Giancanna, Frank Sinatra, Fidel Castro, Santo Trafficante.

I highly recommend this to read. Or, if you want to get started on Ellroy, you can start with his brilliant LA Quartet: The Black Dahlia, White Jazz: A Novel, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere. All four are fantastic. There is no living writer that I enjoy more than him.

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