Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blood's A Rover

I reviewed James Ellroy's Blood's A Rover for today's Australian newspaper. The first few paragraphs are below and you can read the full review here. Spoiler Alert: I liked the book. Also in today's Australian there's an interview with the Napoleon of Irish fiction, John Banville, talking about genre writing.

The Heavyweight in the Red Corner

Boxing aficionado, James Ellroy, is a little like the Joe Frazier of American letters. While Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy get spoken of as contenders for the title of America’s Greatest Novelist, Ellroy often gets dismissed as a mere crime writer. His amour propre, his past as a teenage neo-Nazi, and the fact that he writes about that most gauche of places, Los Angeles, has never endeared him to the literary establishment.
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Blood’s A Rover, however, may just well change their opinion. It is the completion of Ellroy’s near two thousand page American Underworld trilogy that began with the evocative American Tabloid and continued with the extraordinary The Cold Six Thousand. American Tabloid is a technically impressive and often brilliant novel structured around the Cuban Revolution and the Kennedy assassination, written in a clipped ultra telegraphic prose style that reinvents American crime fiction in a way no writer has attempted to do since the 1920's. Harsh, single word, verb-less sentences pile on top of one another like the dripping tap of a water torturer, producing a hypnotic, trance-like effect which repels as many readers as it seduces. But where American Tabloid is a book teetering on the edge of a cliff, The Cold Six Thousand jumps completely into the abyss with an even sparer haiku-like prose style and a complex narrative of conspiracies, invasions and cover-ups starting with JFK’s murder and ending with the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
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Blood’s A Rover breathlessly continues the story in the days following King’s death in Memphis. The central characters in the book are the ones we got to know (and in most cases dislike) in The Cold Six Thousand - the conspirators who planned the hits on both Kennedy brothers and MLK. If this sounds a bit crazy, well, it is. In Ellroy’s America (and one assumes he does not actually believe this) Dr. King was shot by Hoover’s FBI working with the mafia, Cuban exiles and the CIA. King’s murder incites rioting in America’s black ghettoes and Richard Nixon rides the conservative backlash to get elected with a little help from the mob, Dominican drug dealers, an ex FBI macher called Dwight Holly and a murderous ex Las Vegas cop, Wayne Tedrow Jr. who ended book two of the trilogy by helping beat his father to death with a golf club.
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To complete the Freudian trio of central protagonists in Blood’s A Rover we are introduced to the new character of Donald Crutchfield, a neophyte private investigator, voyeur and pervert. Ellroy has described himself as the ‘Tolstoy of crime fiction’ and Crutch is transparently Ellroy’s Pierre Bezukhov - a mostly sympathetic avatar of the novelist himself, who gets his kicks (as Ellroy once did) by breaking into women’s homes to sniff their underwear.
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We follow these diverse sociopaths on a wild ride through the politics, controversy and insanity of America in the seventies with Ellroy gleefully libelling the conveniently deceased Nixon, Hoover, LBJ and Howard Hughes who were all in on the whole Kennedy thing. And yes I know this is a novel and not actual history but I still find it a little disturbing that Ellroy absolves such real life individuals as Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, all of whom are mere patsies in the wider conspiracy. Then again, though, maybe that is the point, as in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Ellroy’s world is not quite our world: this is an alternative 1970's, a slightly darker America where intelligence agencies, the military industrial complex and very rich men are the sinister puppet masters. (One shudders to think what Ellroy could do with 9/11 as subject matter.) ...
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(You can read the rest of this review over at The Australian)