Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Underworld USA Trilogy

In September, James Ellroy published Blood's A Rover, the third volume in his Underworld USA Trilogy. With it he closes out his huge--and hugely ambitious--epic of American crime in the years between 1958 and 1972.

Together the books comprise a nearly 2,000 page labyrinth of violence, duplicity, racism, drugs, and full tilt political insanity. The first volume, American Tabloid, follows the careers of three shadowy figures: Pete Bondurant, Kemper Boyd, and Ward Littell. The book culminates with the assassination of JFK, ending about a minute before the shots are fired in Dealey Plaza. The second book, The Cold Six Thousand, picks up about five minutes after the murder and introduces the character of Wayne Tedrow Jr. The book encompasses the bulk of the Vietnam War and the FBI's undeclared war against the Civil Rights Movement. It climaxes with the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Blood's A Rover picks up in 1968 just before the election of Dick Nixon and ends just before the Watergate break in. Blood's A Rover is a nice cap to the trilogy, but I'll have to admit that I find it somewhat inferior to the previous books.

American Tabloid was heralded upon its release as a crime fiction masterpiece, a reputation it deserves. It's a relentless book, written in Ellroy's rapid fire, clipped sentence style. The three main characters form a nice three-way counterpoint to one another, and Ellroy's use of real life figures like JFK, RFK, and J. Edgar Hoover is convincing and unsentimental. The book is by turns exciting, funny, and strangely effecting (strange because the book shoots along like a bullet...or a series of bullets).

In contrast to Tabloid's hero's welcome, The Cold Six Thousand got mixed reviews. Ellroy took his style to the limit of his audience's endurance. The book is an avalanche of simple sentences (the average length is probably five or six words). It contains more racist language than a KKK picnic. It is extraordinarily violent. And it is over six hundred pages long. Still, I have to say, I find it in some ways to be the most compelling book of the trilogy. In particular, I think the character of Ward Littell--a religiously tortured FBI agent turned mob lawyer turned Howard Hughes flunky turned secret MLK supporter--emerges as the most involving character in any of the books. TCST is a dark, fascinating novel.

By contrast, Blood's A Rover seeks to scale back Ellroy's stylistic excesses. He's loosened up the language a little and has inserted lengthy pages from the diaries of two articulate characters. He's expanded his range of perspectives as well. The first two books are told from the alternating third-person perspectives of three different characters. In Blood's A Rover, we get the story from seven different characters--two diarists and five alternating third-person perspectives. This has the effect of giving the narrative some breathing room, and Ellroy's inclusion of the povs of two women and one gay black man are a nice way to break up the white male hegemony that usually dominates his books.

All of this is well and good, but something about this novel feels decidedly less urgent than the first two books. For one thing, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand were set against the back drops of huge events. We watched our protagonists--heroes isn't the right word--as they helped to set into motion the invasion of Cuba, the murder of JFK, Howard Hughes attempted takeover of Las Vegas, and the hits on RFK and MLK. Oh, and Vietnam. The historical narrative of the third book is less compelling, and in some ways Ellroy's personal life has overtaken his interest in history.

This brings us to Joan.

The Red Goddess Joan.

On his current book tour, Ellroy has made no secret that the last few years have been tumultuous times for him. After the break up of his second marriage, Ellroy became involved with a woman named Joan. Their's was an improbable relationship--she is apparently a strongly opinionated left-wing Jewish atheist, a contrast in every way to Ellroy--but it was clearly intense. (On the new DVD of The Line-Up, Ellroy spends half the commentary track talking about Joan, interrupting Eddie Muller on a couple of occasions to turn the conversation away from Muller's explications of San Francisco history and back to Joan.) The author wrote Blood's A Rover as a tribute to Joan (the book is dedicated to her), and she fairly well takes over the narrative in the form of a left wing extremist named Joan Rosen Klein. The question is, does this work?

In a roundabout way, the answer is...kinda. Ellroy has also created a new character named Don Crutchfield, a window-peeping private eye who emerges as the book's main character. Crutchfield's obsession with Joan Rosen Klein forms the emotional core of the book, and in places this synergy works.

What I can't stop wondering, however, is what this book would have been had Ellroy never met Joan. I'm in an interesting position because I've just read the three books in succession. I started volume one over the summer, went on to volume two, and finished it in time to buy the third volume the day it dropped. And honestly, the headlong rush of American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand doesn't seem like it was meant to crescendo with "the Red Goddess Joan" and her attempt to shape world events. The end of the book is a strange kind of letdown. I can feel Ellroy--an author I'm crazy about--bearing his soul, but I feel like it's getting in the way of the narrative.

Still, anyone who reads the first two magnificent books will want to see how the author brings things to a close. Blood's a Rover packs enough classic Ellroy punches--from brilliantly wrought violent set pieces to laugh-out-loud lines--to keep the reader pulled along. J. Edgar Hoover, the only major character to make it through all three books, emerges as the grand villain of the piece. Ellroy's portrayal of him as a vicious and brilliant master manipulator is one of his great creations. The book also features another Ellrovian touch that I have come to see as the defining element of his work: the way in which the interior mental life can swallow someone up. Ellroy's characters are all locked away from each other, locked into their own mental worlds. His characters spend more time thinking--daydreaming, planning, fuming, obsessing--than the characters of any other crime author I can recall. That Ellroy can blend this kind of interior life with such a ferocious narrative style is a testament to his talents. The same could be said of the entire Underworld USA trilogy. It is a great achievement.


Jimmy Callaway said...

Y'know, I had heard murmurings of this Joan person, but hadn't put it together with the Red Goddess from the book. But given the obvious Crutchfield/Ellroy parallels, I guess I shoulda figured something was up. I do agree that this one wasn't as historically grounded, and that kinda takes away from it a bit, but I still kinda like it better than American Tabloid. Ain't nothing gonna top Cold Six Thousand, though, for my money.

Jake Hinkson said...

Yeah, I do like how Crutch is a stand-in for the young dipshit Ellroy. And I definitely like the book overall, but I flat-out loved the first two. Great writers almost always set the bar so high that not even they can clear it. Still, that ain't a bad problem to have...

Paul D. Brazill said...

great post. Elroy will run and run. He's like the writing version of The Prisoner (proper version).

Keith Rawson said...

Rover was probably the most frustrating and satisfying of the trilogy. It was a ball buster and probably the most intricately plotted novel of his career. There were times in it when I couldn't put it down, and other times when I wanted to chuck it across the room and then set it on fire.
Quick note about Crutchfield.
Much like Joan, Crutch is a real person and appeared alongside Ellroy at his recent appearance at the mysterious bookstore in L.A.

Jake Hinkson said...

Paul: he will always run. Btw, haven't watched the new Prisoner, just on principle.

Keith: I agree it's a fine book in many ways. Why did you find it to be the most satisfying? And what parts had you wanting to incinerate it?

Keith Rawson said...

You know, Jake, what I found most satisfying about the book were the multiple POV's. Seven characters is a lot for Ellroy to juggle (He's been using the same three character POV template since the Big Nowhere.)also I thought his handling of the Marsh/Karen diaries was fascinating and highly readable.

What I found frustrating were most of the DR parts, which felt too much like a retread of the Vietnam/Cuba parts in the Cold six K. Also, it pissed me off to no end when he iced Wayne. I felt Wayne was the heart and soul of the trilogy. I literally did chuck the book (not across the room, but a few feet away from me on the couch.) and refused to read it for a couple of days after he hacked Wayne to pieces.

Jake Hinkson said...

Excellent call. You put your finger on it. When Ward bought it, it seemed perfect (in a tragic way). His story to me was the most compelling thing about the first two books. By contrast,Wayne's death seemed arbitrary. When Scotty's section started I thought, "I don't care about this dude. Bring back Tedrow."