Ellroy's American Tabloid
April 26, 2000
American Tabloid. By James Ellroy. Alfred A. Knopf, $25. 576 pages. America is one big dysfunctional family. Dirty secrets. Repressed memories. Towering wall of denial. It's the Big Lie. It's the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. It's the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A big bad bugaboo rattling around the belfry of our national consciousness, the cover-up of that bloody murder in Dallas is what prevents America from real recovery. Like kids whose parent died mysteriously and violently, we've all got our suspicions, but the truth--and its emotional catharsis--eludes us. That's what makes novelist James Ellroy the perfect therapist. He's been there in spades. His divorced, drunken mother was strangled to death by a one-night stand in 1958. Ellroy was 10 years old. He still doesn't know who killed her. Not only is Ellroy's life a microcosm for our national nightmare, but as literature's current Honcho of Hard-Boiled Hollywood, his regular cast of rogue cop characters are exactly the kind of guys who killed Kennedy. Real-life shadow men like Guy Banister, former Chicago G-man turned New Orleans gunrunner, find themselves right at home in the pages of Ellroy's newest novel, American Tabloid. Like his celebrated "L.A. Quartet," four noir novels starting with The Black Dahlia (1987) and culminating in White Jazz (1992), Ellroy's newest novel uses history as a jumping-off point for fictional explorations of the darkest, dirtiest corners of American Life. Not only does he submit his own alternative myth to supplant Kennedy's Camelot, he does it with style, with hyped-up, hepcat lingo, profane prose and breakneck pacing. "It's time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars," he writes in the book's one-page introduction. "It's time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time. Here's to them." American Tabloid bursts out of the gate with sleazy Hollywood shakedowns and Howard Hughes shooting codeine in November 1958. It climaxes in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, as a drop-dead gorgeous showgirl belts out "Unchained Melody" in a dive off Commerce Street. The presidential motorcade rolls in, minutes away. In between, Ellroy eases his readers into the world of wiretappers and mercenaries, Cuban emigres and Mafia dons. A world where money and dope, murder and propaganda equal power. The real world. But why would a novelist, a writer of fiction, be the best kind of therapist to untangle this bloody mess for a nation of cover-up co-dependents? Exactly because he is an artist, unfettered by political or commercial concerns. Filmmaker Oliver Stone proved with his 1992 movie JFK that an artist can open doors of perception, and the cleansing process began. But Stone's take on the assassination was severely limited by two things: his preoccupation with Vietnam and his loyalty to Jim Garrison, the New Orleans prosecutor who brought a conspiracy case to trial in 1968. "For one thing, this wasn't about Vietnam, it was about Cuba and the casinos and the money," Ellroy insists in a recent telephone interview. "And Garrison was a Carlos Marcello toady. But Stone had to make a movie about heroes. That's the Rosetta Stone to explain his psyche." Heroes are the least of Ellroy's concerns. Jack Kennedy is certainly no hero: Ellroy's characters call him "Bad Back Jack" and "Two-Minute Jack," mocking his slam-bam sexual style verified by hotel wiretaps. "The real Trinity of Camelot was Look Good, Kick Ass, Get Laid," Ellroy writes. "Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He talked a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab." There are no heroes in a James Ellroy book. His characters exist in a moral vacuum where the ends justify the means, however brutal. Ellroy's three main men in American Tabloid--don't dare call them heroes--are Pete Bondurant, an Los Angeles-based extortionist, pimp and killer; Kemper Boyd, a sharp-dressed FBI-sanctioned auto thief and ladies' man; and Ward Littel, an alcoholic FBI agent/lawyer with a hard-on for the Mob. These three form the nexus around which swirl the murderous machinations of Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover and a host of Mafiosi including Sam Giancana, Santos Trafficante Jr., Jack Ruby and the aforementioned Carlos Marcello. Where Oliver Stone was loathe to plumb the depths of Mob involvement with the Kennedy killing, Ellroy dives right in. His fictional recreation of the three-way alliance between the Mafia, the CIA and anti-Castro Cubans is so vividly portrayed, you can hear the Spanish curse words, taste the garlic and clam sauce, and smell the gunpowder. Even Ellroy's tangential characters are finely chiseled, and good for a few laughs, as lounge singers and minor mobsters shuck and jive with politicians, Teamsters and cops. His female characters are less well fleshed out, but Ellroy works them cleverly into various conspiracies, assigning them tasks besides jumping in the sack with Two-Minute Jack. Ellroy never lets exposition get in the way of action. He introduces each of his three main men, then lets them go about their business, and readers go along for the wild ride, as the three drive and fly around the country for five years working on any number of nefarious operations, individually and in teams. Torture and homicide are commonplace in American Tabloid, as no less than 20 major characters and more than 160 soldiers, Klansmen and dope dealers are eliminated by gunshot, bomb, machete or chain saw. The violence may seem indulgent, but its sheer volume puts the assassination in context. In this bloody milieu, the Kennedy murder was merely business as usual. But our government is never going to fess up. In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations was finally forced to admit--in one brief brave moment of sobriety--that the JFK hit was "probably the result of a conspiracy." But the government will never admit that its own "compartmentalized" forces took up arms against the executive branch. To compound the institutionalized fiction of the Warren Report, the mainstream media heartily embraced the lone gunman cover-up. The "Oswald acted alone" theory is still propounded by writers such as CIA mouthpiece Gerald Posner (Case Closed, Random House, 1993) and Norman Mailer, whose recently published Oswald's Tale (also Random House) finds the author fascinated with the patsy's pathetic sex life. One fruitcake shooter with a cheapshit mail-order rifle and a scope that jiggled? That's stinkin' thinkin', guys. Full-blown mass denial. The nation's state of denial mirrors the Kennedy family's own dysfunctional inability to publicly brand the Warren Commission as bunk. But the Kennedys--who certainly have a tradition of keeping secrets--probably had their reasons. They knew who their enemies were, and what they were capable of. Bobby Kennedy had been hounding Jimmy Hoffa for years as counsel for the McClellan Committee, and as attorney general he was gearing up to go after the Mafia. Sam Giancana bought Jack the election twice--in the West Virginia primary and again in Illinois in November--and felt ripped off when JFK wouldn't call off the dog, his brother Bobby. The younger brother had deported New Orleans mob boss Carlos Marcello to Guatemala in 1961. When the gangster returned to the Big Easy he was pissed, and facing further federal charges. Forces within the government itself--the CIA and FBI specifically--also butted heads with the Kennedy brothers. Both the Mob and anti-Castro Cubans fumed over JFK's wimp-out at the Bay of Pigs. All of these feuds, scams and strong-arm tactics are brilliantly integrated by Ellroy via an imaginative melange of wiretap transcripts, field agent reports, newspaper stories and phone conversations. But beyond those animosities, Ellroy posits some intriguing probabilities that Kennedy patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr. forged unholy alliances during Prohibition that led indirectly to his son's 1963 murder. If the Kennedys had ever challenged the Warren Report, they would have risked revelations that could have destroyed the whole family, not only their favorite son. American Tabloid is the first of a trilogy of novels Ellroy calls Underworld U.S.A. The next book will pick up in Dallas and cover the turbulent years through 1968, while the final installment will take place from 1968 through Watergate, in 1973. We need writers like Ellroy to function as psychotherapists for the masses. He knocks us to the couch and forces us to face the truth. He's no Dr. Feelgood, no touchy-feely shill like Leo Buscaglia. Ellroy's more like that old lecher Fritz Perls, a primal scream kind of guy, rubbing our noses in history's shit. SIDEBAR Novelist Noir James Ellroy's life is as fascinating as any of his complex, criminally-inclined characters. When he was 10 years old, his divorced mother, an attractive 43-year-old redhead, was murdered in El Monte, Calif. When he was 15, Ellroy began a 14-year binge, losing himself on the streets of L.A. in booze, pot, amphetamines and hallucinogens. He was arrested more than 40 times for breaking and entering and other petty crimes. A girlfriend who got sober helped straighten him out in 1977, and he began writing two years later. Now 47 and living in Connecticut with his writer-wife Helen and dog Barko, Ellroy has produced 11 novels, mostly sprawling, brawling books such as The Big Nowhere and L.A. Confidential. His hard-boiled style is harder than Hammett and more chilling than Chandler. His characters are twisted in more directions than the maladjusted miscreants populating Jim Thompson's midwestern misanthropies. Ellroy's most recent work, American Tabloid, is the first of a trilogy he calls Underworld U.S.A., covering the years 1958 to 1973. "The late 1950s were not any more innocent than the 1990s," he says. "But there was much less public accountability. Bad men ruled by threat, and as long as it worked, nobody complained. Everybody was in bed with everybody else." Before he continues the Underworld series, however, Ellroy plans to write his first non-fiction work, tentatively titled My Dark Places. For the past several years, the novelist has joined with retired L.A. homicide detective Bill Stoner, trying to get to the bottom of his mother's murder. My Dark Places will present her story, his story, Stoner's story. "I've been running from this woman, and toward her, all my life," says Ellroy, who wrote two novels, Clandestine and The Black Dahlia, loosely based on his mother's case. But My Dark Places won't be fiction. "I think this book I'm writing now is the central journey of my life," Ellroy admits, "and when it's finished I'll be altered forever." ??