Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Demon-Dog of American Literature

James Ellroy

Something a bit different. My brother Gav asked if I would write a book review for him to post on his new website which he is currently developing for his weekly e-comics (http://gatoons.com/). We're both big James Ellroy fans and Ellroy's newest novel was recently released in the last few months. Having spent the last couple of days writing and editing it, why not post it here for your enjoyment!

Blood’s A Rover
By James Ellroy
A book review

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad; when the journey's over
There'll be time enough for sleep.

A.E. Housman

And so begins the conclusion to James Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy, the self-proclaimed ‘Demon-Dog’ of American crime fiction, is probably best known for his crime novel turned critically acclaimed film L.A. Confidential (99% on Rotten Tomatoes!). Blood’s a Rover follows a lot of baaaad shit that went down in the USA between 1968 and 1972 – Nixon’s 1968 Presidential campaign, the shadowy machinations of the FBI controlled by J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes’s Vegas power-play – thrown in amongst Red-sympathisers, rogue FBI agents and Haitian voodoo-men. Blood’s rounds out a turbulent time in American history, concluding what his sublime American Tabloid (following 1958-63 USA) and its follow-up, The Cold Six Thousand (1963-68) begun. Ellroy writes like Dillinger with his Tommy Gun – a staccato-beat unlike any other. Blood’s may not be as sparse as his brilliant White Jazz (1992), but his sentences here are still nigh Jazz riffs served up like a jab to the kidneys.

Par exemple…

“The noise was big. Wayne dodged sign-wavers. Nixon signs bobbed upside his face. He lugged two big steamer trunks. Nixon was at the Fontainebleu. He had to walk. He couldn’t drive. The elephant stampede shut traffic down”

Above: Hoover, Hughes, Monty, Nixon and Castro.

The story goes with White Jazz back in 92, Ellroy handed his editor a 900-page draft. His editor only wanted 350-pages so Ellroy eliminated all the verbs, adjectives and did away with normal sentence-structure - thus Ellroy’s staccato-beat was born.

Two main characters return for the grand finale; Wayne Tedrow Jr - ex-cop and right-hand man to the Mob and Dwight Holly – J. Edgar’s FBI henchman and racist hate spreader. A new character is introduced - Donald Crutchfield – a pimpled peeping-tom and bug-man (as in ‘wire-tap’) on the way to losing his soul. Ellroy mixes these fictional characters with real-life heavyweights – FBI Director ‘Old Girl’ Edgar Hoover, Howard ‘Drac’ Hughes, ex-champ Sonny Liston – and ties them to real-life events. He does this with such aplomb that we’re willing to accept his history as status quo.

Blood’s picks up from where The Cold Six Thousand left off – Wayne Tedrow Jr left to fill Ward Littell’s job as bagman to the Mob in their quest to build casinos in the Dominican Republic. Dwight Holly, the ultra-right FBI agent and J. Edgar Hoover’s favourite G-Man, in the middle of Hoover’s fear of the Black power movement and his left-wing radical girlfriend. And probably the most interesting character, Don Crutchfield, supposedly based on a real-life Private eye but on the page clearly a young Ellroy (who has written in his memoir, My Dark Places, of his youth as a voyeur and petty thief).

Noir doesn’t get any blacker than this. Chandler this ain’t. Ellroy is Chandler on a 3-day crack binge chased with Red Bull and a double espresso. Blood’s will satiate Ellroy fans thirst; if you are an Ellroy virgin, maybe try the first of his L.A. Quartet – The Black Dahlia or the ‘10 times better than the movie’ L.A. Confidential. The language is not as staccato’ed and Ellroy used sentences back then. And from there…well, I envy you.

If you like hard-boiled crime fiction ala Dashiell Hammett or Ross McDonald you'd probably like Ellroy. If Twilight is more your thing, you probably wouldn't. Although, Howard Hughes (in Ellroy's world) did get pretty weird and vampire-like in later life so you never know. Remember the Simpsons episode where Mr Burns walked around in Kleenex boxes as shoes? Well that was based on Hughes as he descended into madness. See ,Mum, all that Simpsons WAS educational!

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