Updated: Jul 5, 2022
Recently reread James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy comprising the novels American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood's A Rover (2009). It still stands up as one of the sharpest dissections of the dark underbelly of the American Dream, especially in the way it explores the intersections of criminality with politics, the law, fame and celebrity. In that sense, it's unique among works of American crime fiction.
If you haven't already encountered Ellroy's fiction - and to get a flavour of what he's about, you could do worse than check out Curtis Hanson's 1997 adaptation of L.A. Confidential - then this comes highly recommended. In the meantime, here's a piece I wrote for my Black Static column, Night's Plutonian Shore, back in 2010.
In his Underworld USA trilogy – American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001) and Blood’s a Rover (2009) – James Ellroy has explicated not simply an alternative history of the assassinations of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, he has all but flayed the flesh from the American body politic. He tells us more about the darker impulses that drive America – greed, self-delusion, betrayal, and a narcissistic impulse towards self-destruction – than any number of ‘literary’ writers who have wrestled with the notion of America and its identity.
I’m not saying that what Ellroy writes is historical truth. In American Tabloid, for instance, the book that displays the greatest degree of what he calls “reckless verisimilitude”, the narrative events largely form an adjunct to its climactic moment – the JFK assassination team put together by the protagonists is stood down in favour of a rival hit squad. Speaking about the historical veracity of Blood’s a Rover in a Guardian podcast, Ellroy described it as “ninety-nine per cent fiction and wholly fact.” Implicit here is the discordance between the official record of American history of the period, and competing interpretations suggested by reason and diligent curiosity. In the space between the two, his narrative functions as a secret reality.
The space allows Ellroy to explore a concept he understands far better than most literary writers: evil. Outside of genre fiction, I can think of few novelists who’ve really engaged with or understand evil, particularly its role in shaping a nation’s identity. Cormac McCarthy is one – in both No Country For Old Men, and Blood Meridien. Roberto Bolano, with 2666, is another. While most ‘literary’ writers concern themselves with already over-familiar themes, very few seem willing to grapple with evil. There’s a kind of snobbery at work here – evil is something that genre writers do. Evil as a concept – with all its supernatural and religious connotations, couldn’t possibly be a fruitful area for the serious novelist to explore. It’s no co-incidence that McCarthy chose two genre forms to explore evil – the crime thriller and the western – but, particularly in Blood Meridien, the form allowed him to examine the nature of man’s savagery and how it has played a major role – through the idea of manifest destiny – in shaping American history.
In Underworld USA, Ellroy has pulled off a similar feat. Having once described himself as the greatest crime novelist ever (he’s prone to extravagant claims about himself and his work, not all of which should be taken seriously), it might have seemed brave – or foolhardy – to stray from the 1950s Hollywood terrain which had elevated him to the top of the crime-writing pack. But his crime novels, particularly the LA Quartet, located in a specific time and place, and populated by a mix of fictional and real characters, were already as much historical fictions as they were noir thrillers.
In broadening his geographical scope, Ellroy has found the space to interrogate conflicting ideas about American identity. The narrative’s 14 year span – 1958-72 – is crucial, given the upheavals which transformed the way the US thought about itself, and how it was perceived throughout the rest of the world. After the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam, Americans could no longer perceive their country as, to paraphrase Gil Scott-Heron, the man on the white horse riding to save the world. What Ellroy does is to offer fictional theses on the failed Cuban invasion; on why the US got embroiled in Vietnam (check out the documentary The Most Dangerous Man in America); why the FBI focused more on infiltrating civil rights and black power organisations rather than going after the mob; how heroin became the currency that financed both right and left wing revolution; and how easily the men in power let themselves be seduced by the dreams of very bad men.
For what Ellroy recognises is the potent attraction of bad men doing bad things. The representation of bad men is what separates him from most genre writers. There are no stereotypical, superhuman serial killers here; you won’t find Lector clones hanging out with Ellroy’s crew of rogue cops, mobbed-up lawyers, right-wing Cuban exiles, Ku Klux Klanners, and freelance CIA operatives. Pete Bondurant is an ex-cop with mob connections working as a bagman and drug procurer for Howard Hughes; Kemper Boyd, FBI man and favourite of J. Edgar Hoover, infiltrates the Kennedy inner circle, sets Jack up with whores and persuades him of the rightness of the pro-exile/anti-Castro cause; Ward Littell is a lawyer and FBI agent who idolises Bobby Kennedy and is determined to help him fight against organised crime, a stance that gains him automatic entry onto Hoover’s shitlist. These protagonists of American Tabloid each experience an apostasy. Bondurant, motivated by money becomes fervently pro-cause; Boyd, cast out of the Kennedy circle, determines that Jack must pay the price for the Bay of Pigs; Littell, spurned by Bobby, becomes the mafia’s top lawyer. A key aspect of each man’s psyche is his ability to compartmentalise. Thus they can switch allegiances without compunction from the FBI to the Mob, from the CIA to the Kennedy’s anti-mob investigation, or work for any combination of these at the same time with no sense of conflict. Compartmentalisation, Ellroy implies, allows otherwise rational, even moral, men to do evil things.
Perhaps the most profound transformation is that experienced by Bondurant. Early on, he is described as the “Shakedown king. Pimp. Killer.” Over the course of the book we see him as charismatic, ruthless, merciless – the brutal tough guy personified. But what really makes him come alive, what makes us care about him, is his fear. Throughout the book, but particularly after the Bay of Pigs, and on into The Cold Six Thousand, he is transformed into a man driven by fear – of the past, of the mob, of his betrayals catching up with him, of the harm he might cause to be visited on those he loves, and ultimately of the fragility and fleetingness of life itself.
In the second and third books new protagonists appear. Wayne Tedrow Jr, is a Las Vegas cop with a reputation as a racist murderer, who manufactures heroin, replaces Littell as Howard Hughes’ chief negotiator for the takeover of mob-owned Vegas casinos, and experiences an apotheosis in the Haitian jungle. There’s Hoover’s enforcer, Dwight Holly, instrumental in the King and Bobby Kennedy hits, who undergoes a radical political transformation in the third book through his involvement with an illusive left-wing female radical; and there’s Donald Crutchfield, a young, would-be private dick and peeping tom who becomes entangled in Tedrow and Holly’s complex schemes and emerges scarred but re-humanised from his collision with history. Ellroy lays bare the weaknesses of his protagonists, particularly to self-deception. Much of the narrative is written in short, staccato sentences – reaching its flawed apogee in The Cold Six Thousand – where the brutal terseness serves, like Bondurant’s fists, to beat the reader into submission. There is much humour in the books, particularly in the dialogue – scatological, racist, full of period slang and Hollywood dirt – but the prevailing tone is one of profound sadness.
The sadness derives from their bitter and hard-won insights. The knowledge that in working for men like Hoover, JFK, Nixon, and the mob, Ellroy’s protagonists have destroyed not just themselves, but their idea of America. Perversely, he reveals the extent to which the masters are themselves seduced by the badass aura of Holly, Bondurant and Tedrow. An increasingly loopy Hoover fluctuates between the need for reassurance from Holly and paranoia that his enforcer is working against him. At one point, trying to get one over on Hoover, Nixon tells him, “Dwight’s my main man. We jaw on the phone sometimes.” In the end, good cannot triumph over evil in Ellroy’s world, but as Allen Barra noted (Salon.com) evil can only burn itself out, and in order to do this, the Ellroy hero “must toss himself into the conflagration, to make it burn higher and brighter.” The hypnotic power of Ellroy’s portrait of America lies in our own willingness to collude with the dreams and of these bad men, our deathless wish to follow them into the fire.