Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blood's A Rover

JAMES Ellroy, a devoted boxing aficionado, 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 he writes about that most gauche place, Los Angeles, has never endeared him to the literary establishment. 

Blood's a Rover, however, may well change their opinion. It is the completion of Ellroy's near 2000-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 John Kennedy's 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 1920s. 

Harsh, single word, verbless sentences pile on top of one another like the dripping tap of a water torturer, producing a hypnotic, trance-like effect that 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 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. 

Blood's a Rover breathlessly continues the story in the days following King's death in Memphis. The central characters 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) King was shot by J. Edgar 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. 

To complete the Freudian triad 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 who gets his kicks (as Ellroy once did) by breaking into women's homes to sniff their underwear. We follow these diverse sociopaths on a wild ride through the politics, controversy and insanity of America in the 70s, with Ellroy gleefully libelling the conveniently dead Nixon, Hoover, Lyndon Johnson and Howard Hughes, who were all in on the whole Kennedy thing. 

And, yes, I know this is a novel and not history but I still find it a little disturbing that Ellroy absolves real-life individuals such as Sirhan Sirhan, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, all of whom are patsies in the wider conspiracy. 

Then again, maybe that is the point, as in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, Ellroy's world is not quite our world: this is an alternative 1970s, a slightly darker America where intelligence agencies, the military industrial complex and very rich men are the sinister puppet masters. 

Ellroy's strengths are his descriptions of men of action doing violent deeds or preparing for them. In these scenes his writing jumps off the page and his language is ironic, cynical and at times humorous. Watching professionals do their job can be a lot of fun, even if they are ice-cold killers. 

The writing in Blood's a Rover is Ellroy at his most confident and mature; the staccato prose style has been dialled down a notch from The Cold Six Thousand and the plot is inventive, surprising and, because we are still talking about a crime novel here, exciting. Ellroy's weaknesses are his weirder flights of fancy, the occasionally peculiar motivations of his characters and his female leads who, although given much more room to breathe in this book, still act and talk like few women any of us would recognise. 

Blood's a Rover is a line from A. E. Housman, which gives you a clue to Ellroy's sensibility; as George Orwell noted in his essay Inside the Whale, Housman is the poet par excellence for men baffled by "treacherous, half-human" women. (Although perhaps a writer whose mother was murdered by persons unknown when he was 10 should be cut a little slack.) 

Ellroy's language, too, can be offputting, riddled as it is with ethnic slurs and homophobia, but it is a canard to accuse Ellroy of racism; he is an ironist, not a racist, and the entire American Underworld trilogy can be read as an apocalyptic parable about the rise of fascism. 

Blood's a Rover is not quite the masterpiece that was The Cold Six Thousand but it is an ambitious, bold, outrageous, over the top tour de force that confirms Ellroy's place as one of the most important living novelists in the US. 

I tackled (I use the word advisedly) the book in two sittings and it will almost certainly in my top 10 crime novels of the year. While Ellroy may never be the favoured son among the New York literary elite, he has shown with this trilogy that he can go 15 rounds with Pynchon, DeLillo, Roth or any other heavyweight American novelist you care to name.