Saturday, March 20, 2010

American Nightmare (James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover)

James Ellroy's sensational new novel Blood's a Rover (2009) initially made me wince when I realized its subject: the aftermath of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. We're back in the late-60s and early-70s, man, in a country reeling from J. Edgar Hoover and Tricky Dick Nixon's reactionary shenanigans and set to implode with war protest and cultural strife. Been there, exhausted that. Yet Ellroy makes this familiar territory as fresh as he did 50s crime noir in L.A. Confidential. That's the only other book of the author's I've read, and while Blood's a Rover is the grand finale of his "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy (preceded by American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), the similarities between it and the aforementioned "L.A. Quartet" thriller are apparent. The protagonists are a trio of antiheroes up to their eyeballs in a complicated plot involving the highest powers and the lowest scum, fictional fringe players interacting with real-life movers and shakers, attracted to ambiguous and dangerous women, affected by attitudes toward race.

Blood's a Rover opens with a viscerally-staged bank robbery in Los Angeles, an event whose importance takes a goodly while in revealing itself. In the interim we meet Wayne Tedrow, Jr., privately tormented by his involvement in the murder of MLK; Dwight Holly, a shake-down federal agent paying off an unknown debt to the aging FBI director; and "Dipshit" Don Crutchfield, a private detective who may be less dense than he appears. All are vividly rendered characters, and their fates entwine via OPERATION BAAAAAAD BROTHER, a J. Edgar-initiated covert operation geared to bring down a pair of upstart radical black movements -- the Black Tribe Alliance (BTA) and the Mau-Mau Liberation Front (MMLF).

As always, Ellroy is an odd amalgam of huckster and real deal. Tedrow, Holly and Crutchfield each undergo profound character shifts -- in no small part due to their involvement with respective women in their lives and one woman in particular, a shadowy counterculture figure named the Red Goddess Joan -- and their sudden changes are like Jack Vincennes' in L.A. Confidential: deeply moving and a tad unconvincing. It was Kevin Spacey's remarkable performance that sold Jack's transformation in Curtis Hanson's screen adaptation, a stellar film with a "sell-out Hollywood ending" that was in fact lifted wholesale from the original novel. Ellroy is a canny self-promoter who is also a genuine romantic, and that romanticism comes through in even his most cynical and despairing tales.

This is nothing new in Blood's a Rover, nor is Ellroy's at-times troubling predilection for the word "nigger." (He probes so deeply into prejudicial mindsets it toes the line between critique and endorsement.) What's different this time is a sense of expansiveness, both geographically and emotionally. The narrative hops from L.A. to Las Vegas to D.C. to the Dominican Republic with ease, and the ingenious use of "document inserts" offer insights into the Hoover-Holly relationship as well as another crucial character: the closeted African-American cop Marshall Bowen who infiltrates the radical black movement.

As OPERATION BAAAAAAD BROTHER gathers steam, Hoover starts losing what's left of his marbles (as does Howard Hughes, nicknamed "Dracula" by his closest friends), Bowen forges a tenuous alliance with racist police officer in order to find some missing diamonds, and the three leads meet their fates, Blood's a Rover comes together as one of the clearest manifestations of a troubled time. With a title from a poem by A.E. Houseman ("Clay lies still, but blood's a rover; Breath's a ware that will not keep...."), Ellroy's novel conveys not only a nightmare that America is still inhabiting; it suggests the means by which we can all wake up.


Jason Bellamy said...

Interesting. It's been a while since I've read Ellroy. I pounded through L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid over the course of one year, I think. (I think Tabloid was my favorite.)

He certainly has a gift for blending fiction and nonfiction into this perfect something else -- not quite real, not quite fiction. That's what I like about him. I might have to check this out.

Rob J said...

I had the good fortune to meet Mr Ellroy twice in 1990 and 1995, when he signed "The Big Nowhere" and "American Tabloid" for me at a
book signing fair. He was funny, erudite and very polite. The image and the reality are two different things and as a Black British male,
I have had no problem with the language he uses in the books, because as he once said :-
"America was built by bad white men".

Anybody who looks at US history during 1948 to 1973 will know that it was a very violent, turbulent period internally and externally.

The bottom line is very simple :-

He is a true original and a great, great writer. I was very glad to meet him. Dan Brown will be dead and buried before he comes out with anything as good.

Long may he continue to upset the straights....

tom said...

Reading Blood now (3/24/12). This is my third. Picked up Cold 6000 at library, immediately got hooked. So, read out of order a bit, but no problem.

Agree with your precis of Ellroy's gist. He's a a romantic alright; read his mother was murdered. If his mom's story's true, a deeply traumatized romantic.