James Ellroy – Underworld USA Trilogy

The Slow Review panel work through American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood's a Rover. We are exhausted but elated at the master of crime, conspiracy, complicated conscience and filing.

By Adam Rivett & Rino Breebaart

Adam:
Item! Picked up an imported U.S. hardcover of Blood’s A Rover at Readings on Friday night — the local paperback has been delayed for some reason. Fifty bucks, but so be it. Read 200 pages yesterday — fucking great. Any fears of a drop-off are as yet completely unfounded. Plus it’s got his greatest narrative coup, a genuine motherfucker of a trick. Don’t want to say too much, but I wanted to applaud, laugh out loud and damn him for his daring SIMULFUCKINGTANEOUSLY. The prose has a little more breathing room that Cold Six Thousand while still being uber-tight and rapid.  Once I clock off, I’m running back home for another extended session with the Demon Dog; current brutal headache hopefully containable.

Rino:
I’ve just segued like a cigarette chain from American Tabloid to C6k. Much I had forgotten about in AmTab. Like the Kemper hit. Kemper in my mind is visually indistinguishable from Kevin Spacey. The Jack Kennedy portrait is oddly sympathetic in the first half. And the odd-sympathetic romance of the Bondurant marriage — it’s almost sweet. The Ellrrroy motivation is to push the reader’s face in the dirt, or rather, as close to the face of a mutilated corpse in the morgue as is readerly possible. Already I keep telling people AmTab is simply the best, most authoritative book on the Kennedy Assassination there is.
But I have to read C6K sparingly cos I’m busting to force some personal writing. Jammed in my head. And the bloody problem with good racy smart books is they start infiltrating your style. Quicksmart.
I can almost feel where the edits happened in C6K — I would’ve kept some of the padding — print costs be damned. And yet another part of me says Ellrrrroy should only be read in paperback.

Adam:
You do cast the Ellroy’s U.S. novels in your head, don’t you? I think Jon Hamm would make an impressive Bondurant. Tedrow Jr.’s the tough one. If there was ever a series of books which screamed HBO production, it’s these. But the violence would need to be tamed, and that’s a big vile loss. And you’d need to find a filmic perspective that retained the poison and racism and rest of the prose voice. Which is hard — something like Sam Fuller’s tabloid perspicacity cut with FOX News. Maybe a HBO/FOX collaboration.
Hardcover? Necessary, my friend. The fucker is heavy too — 670+ pages. A solemn JE pressed into the front cover. Epic.

Rino:
Think I might tweet a C6K chapter or two. Nuts. Just for the hell of it; like you said this is possibly the first Twitter novel in existence, and it predates Twitter. I’m about 200 pages deep in it now, but jeez it’s like reading a book in morse code. I find myself having to reread bits all the time. So sharp/quick.

Adam:
Indeed — glad it wasn’t just me actually. After a great opening 60/70 pages with Wayne in Dallas, the book does hit info overload with the long intro brief about Vegas drug code and Hughes’ expansion plans.
Rover is still kicking my ass. It slightly bogged down in the middle as many a good book does, but am 500 pages in now with 150 or so to go, and it’s rallied beautifully. Actually, with the way things are aligning and realigning, it’s close to perfect in its organisation. And there’s no obvious endpoint like in AmTab and C6K. It’s also sadder, and more politically complicated. And more infected with early Ellroy noir than the first two. Mucho to say. The time will come.

Update: finished Blood’s A Rover all of an hour ago. Am still a little breathless. It’s the most ambitious of the trilogy, and not all of it works, but its cumulative power renders carping pointless. Pure narrative force — it demands readerly fealty. It fucks with narrative perspective a lot more than the first two. Too many possible spoilers here for me to say much, so as soon as you finish C6K, this will hopefully be out in paperback. Buy it — consume. Re-entering the world after a back to back to back reading of all three, the world seems a little plain. Again, so much to say — but you’ll be there soon, and I’ll wait for the ramble then. Hell, I even cried a little at the end. Believe it. Fuck him — it’s some kind of masterpiece. Again, the book has its problems, and I’ve heard from the Ellroy diehards who scoffed it down even quicker than I that it’s the weakest of the three, but I don’t buy it. FUCK RANKINGS. Right now, hell, it’s my favourite. SO MAYBE RANKINGS ARE GOOD AND I’M SAYING IT.
And I’ve got the Lloyd Hopkins trilogy lined up in paperback ready to go — back to the early 80s, when James was still caddying, sobering up and dreaming of the big novels to come.

Adam:
Two Ellroy side effects:
1. You start using ‘vibe’ as a verb. Last night I said to Mel, re: a work arrangement, “It doesn’t vibe right with me.” . She looked at me like I was an Adam impersonator.
2. Casual racism. This is a little embarrassing for such a good lil’ liberal like me, but after getting repeatedly blocked off / jumped ahead of in the line to an Asian-dominated chicken joint on campus last week, the line “move it you fucking chink” passed through my mind. I mean, WHAT THE FUCK. But you soak in this juice long enough, and it just seeps in. It wasn’t like I was even that annoyed, or had much loathing for the Asian brotherhood (my racial loathings are less obvious, more original and obtuse…), but the words just came to me unbidden. Odd, and curious, and more than a little disquieting. And again, not that it needs to be said, but it’s not like Ellroy is a racist — this is super clear even in the early stages of Blood on The Moon. But he’s so fucking canny at evoking the unshakeable linguistic brutality of one-track racism that it just gets to you after a while.

Rino:
I would add two effects:
~ restless dreams.
~ tough guy quips.
he does creep in though, pervasive-like. Terms like braced, jazzed, juice, accrete in the brain.

Update: It is done. C6K is a monster of a book.
I feel like I’ve been on a looooong rollercoaster ride… and am still rattling a bit. The boat job scene is almost as good as the ledger heist in AmTab. What a huuuuuge book. Mad. Unrelenting. This guy should write a history book… or maybe he has.
C6K is an endless pile-up… it’s supremely hard-boiled fiction (what comes after & above hard-boiled?) that just hits and never lets up. C6K may lack the dirty dovetailing & sheer organic causal chain of AmTab, and the change in shift/role/plays of Hoover is a key element methinks, but it’s an endless joyride of amoral action. Interesting how morality, conscience and goodness are totally skewered; how goodness is corrupted and brought down like fair game. And mirrored in the relationship development, the maturation of Tedrow Jr, the moral barnacling of Littel (and I stupidly read something on the second last page — just a snippet — that I shouldn’t have). It’s so broad in the full sense of 20th Century potential — not just a narrow perspective like Noir — it’s America-all-encompassing and dementedly full-on and brilliant in execution and colour and jive/jibe and also the furthest thing from mere conspiracy-mongering. It encompasses and feeds a DOZEN conspiracy theories and stays BIGGER than them all… The racial shots are almost hilarious. The riff on Sammy Davis in the casino, the diss on Sinatra… It’s almost disturbing how at home Ellrrroy is in all this… cue persona issues. And YouTube videos.
When I’ve finished I’m gonna have a little break, watch Miller’s Crossing again, and then maybe eventually cross over into volume three.

Adam:
I know — each book leaves you completely wrung out. Agree with you about the boat scene — an old-fashioned book-ending action scene. And despite Bondurant’s complete ghastliness as a human being, you’re somehow rooting for him. That he doesn’t kill women as a rule and is able to honestly love Barb makes him, in this world, better than most.
Oh how I do love that ledger heist scene, and the 100 or so Littell pages either side of it. What a sympathetic obsessive mess he is at the start of AmTab — and just look at what he becomes, and how it ends.
The path Ellroy takes Wayne Jnr down is amazing — the crossed sympathies, the moralism vs. immoral behaviour. The innate racial contradictions.
Had your phrase ‘moral barnacling’ bouncing round my head all yesterday. Perfect phrase if you don’t mind me saying. Captures perfectly the slow collection of misdeeds and compromises that finally makes and breaks these guys.
C6K is almost my fave of the three — easily the most condensed, the most brutal and cynical, the most nard-bashing. A book only Ellroy could have written. No-one else would have had the patience and vision and sheer dogged stamina. I’m glad he chanced his hand on the short-style on the middle volume. What you gain in brute force you lose in range. It’s the perfect holding pattern / acceleration book. And then the slowed, expansive, crazy-connections of the third.
The Underworld U.S.A style is the perfect novel style, imaginable only in that form. Fuck the perfectly turned long sentence, fuck jewels in mud. It’s sheer accumulation. A billion nasty short sentences that somehow form a cathedral.

Also finished Blood On the Moon. It’s craaaaaazy overblown. Now on My Dark Places, which I remember a little of from the first read back in ’99.

Rino:
Also — I love Ellrrroy’s power with shifting valence/allegiance/angles. The good plays of AmTab are the dodges and has-beens of C6K, the good guys are just slightly less evil, the bad guys merely changing the theatre or contextual rules of war. Or building better conspiracies (in the purely structural sense of the term). Rotating and fluid allegiances, debts, shakedowns. Usefullness vs Expendability. Money and naked power driving all. And also note the change in Hoover — much more malignant, aggressive, directly scheming, to the passive withholder and manipulator of AmTab.
I find Bondurant quite charming. The cat, the winks, the just-enough intelligence.
I like how Ellrrroy never once says ‘jetlagged’ but always ‘travel-fucked.’
Do tell me there’s more Nixon in Rover? He’s the perfect stooge for Ellrrroy plays methinks.

Adam:
Yeah, and Hoover gets nastier, more venal in Rover. And yep, there’s more Nixon in Rover, though mostly in transcripts. The imitation of his voice is quite funny — crass, crude/intelligent, colloquial. Nice relief after the officiousness of the Hoover voice. He’s funny, almost likeable. Though Nixon is not a big player in the book plotwise — he’s mostly a background player in the opening 300 pages re: the ’68 election vs. Humphrey.
I’ve got to say — though I don’t want to write like him in any way, reading the trilogy’s really put the wind in my sails writing-wise. Maybe it’s just the scale of the thing, and our readerly knowledge of the effort he’s put in, but I’ve walked away all lightheaded and aspirational and alive. Again, not a decision to mimic and switch genres (I couldn’t write a procedural for shit). Just larger notions of ambition, diligence, personal vision.
Whatever works, I guess.

Rino:
What I like about Ellrrroy’s style in C6K — it’s almost purely informational — but in a way that shags like Chricton/Grishams just never attain. What’s astounding is that so much piling brevity can also contain so much colour, inflection, suggestion. Some of the back & forth discussions cover a wealth of innuendo and understanding. There’s not a wasted word. And the repetitions are always right-on. Repetition has meaning, purpose, always. And then the stylistic repetitions — he baaad etc — form the gestalt writerly style. Damn he good.

Adam:
The other thing I like about the sustained short style is how effective it is for action, esp. a quickly revealed perception. He saw him. He saw the gun. Mesplede moved. etc. Ellroy does it with more brio and grace than my feeble imitation — but still, it’s a fitting style for so much of the material, and so much more than just Spillane hard-boiled rebop parody as other critics would have you believe. Look at Wayne’s showdown with Moore at the end of the book’s first section — it’s an apt atomisation of what in ‘real life’ would be two to three seconds. A Faulknerian high style is equally good for this, but rarely a middling safe style with all the syntax boxes neatly ticked. As with most true stylists, it’s a required style. How else would you write it up?
There’s a joke in DeLillo’s Libra that the Warren Commission Report is the supernovel that Joyce would have written if he’d grown up in Dallas and lived to be one hundred. C6K is sorta that book. Sorta.
Well, just this, and briefly too: the comedown from the U.S.A. trilogy is meeeeeean. Blood on The Moon is gauche and pacy and barely functional. My Dark Places is decent non-fiction and occasionally hilarious (eg: describing his taste in women in the early 80s), but that material is so much more vivid in The Black Dahlia and, in a way, Rover. That’s not a spoiler, trust me. But you’ll see what I mean…
And then I move on to some more Wambaugh, and this morning it’s Ed McBain’s Ice on the train, trying to concentrate while sitting next to someone playing death metal on their iPod at SEVEN IN THE FUCKING MORNING, and so on and so on, but really, these are decent crime/police writers and maybe even decent writers per se, but after Ellroy’s masterwork, which shames his own earlier efforts and easily outpaces the L.A. Quartet, and ab-so-lute-ly DECIMATES the field otherwise, not to mention outpacing the books he claims to have been influenced/inspired by (one of which, Wambuagh’s The Onion Field, I’m presently reading, and which is so far quite good), I mean, really, it’s all so very downhill from here.

Great art royally fucks over the 99% mediocre-to-decent world, for sure.

Also — I cannot read any more Ellroy. When I finish The Big Nowhere, that’ll be it for a while. It’s exhausting, and the L.A. Quartet, as good as they are for straight crime novels, can’t match the U.S.A trilogy. And I think reading too much crime fiction has fucked with my brain a little. A tad too anti-intellectual of late, I suspect….

Rino:
OK, Blood’s a Rover is in the house and I have begun. Already, I can say: Fuck! Is there anything as good as Ellrrroy?

Adam:
Glad you’re enjoying it. God, there’s a book I could joyously re-read this afternoon or sooner. It’s a curious one — I hope you like its variations and noirish corners. When it hits the conspiracy motherlode, you’ll know it. Ah, the mastery of Ellroy’s plotting. And how about that opening with the armoured van? I love the setting-scene details of Scotty — the numbers on the lapel! I was nodding in approval at that point — yes James, make me wonder. As you can probably already tell with the Present / jump back / jump ahead THEN/NOW set-up, the book covers a wider swathe of ground than the first two.

When I see BlooodRover in stores, I’m tempted to buy another copy, even though it’s the same book. I need more of him. I haven’t stared longingly at an already-explored cultural object like this since the OK Computer fandom of ’97.

Rino:
The books are keyed to a keyword: AmTab is ‘compartmentalised’ BloodRover is ‘confluence’. C6K either ‘expendable’ or ‘Vegas.’ This one reads more like a mystery. So damn connected, almost unreal, but then hyperreal as well. So far, about seven chapters have ended with Oh God moments for me.

Adam:
Aye — the way he brings in the murder mystery plot injects a healthy dose of L.A. Quartet into the already buzzing conspiracy tales — it’s a return home, and the most personal/old-fashioned of the three books. While still honoring the promise of the first two.

The moment where Don hears Mesplede and crew talking about all of the hits of the first two books is a brilliant invention — it frames the Ellroyish kid as a central witness/explainer, integrates him into the plot (logically), and explains who, so to speak, is writing the book. And it’s funny too!

And threw up.
And shit my pants.
And etc.

Rino:
This is of course a week later, but it is done. BloodRover is in the can. What a ride. Ellrrroy is my favourite rollercoaster. He is the unchallenged master of crime/narrative/filing.

BloodRover puts a damning lid on all that 60s optimism and flowery cant (as if C6K hadn’t already…). It puts Ellrrroy so far above conspiracy bollocks and wankery, and yet it’s deeply enmeshed with the conspirators. The very term ‘Conspiracy’ means something different after Ellrrroy. The book, the trilogy is a testament to the deeply ambivalent complexity of surface issues like racism and underworld politics, of connective forces. There’s so many dark shades of grey, so many dark and variable hues to the faces of evil, as to make all cliches seem laughable and slight. You can’t just say ‘he’s a racist.’ Look at Holly for eg.

I had this ongoing mental riff: imagine Greil Marcus trying to work a Stagger Lee routine in Ellrrroy’s world. Ellrrroy would rrroll over laughing.

I laughed my ass off at all the white placements of ‘Tell it like it is.’

Unlike conspiracy theories, which tend to terminate with ‘it’s all connected, (man)’ — Rover has a sense of ongoing connection, that time folds into it. That these are the dark wrinkles of civilisation, always were. Once the milk truck heist is clarified and connected, the forces of collusion and convergence will go on, at different strata, well into and past Nixon’s second term. Files or no files. Just outside of these characters.

I’ll admit: the book is slightly insane, and insanely well-ordered. During the reading, I kept thinking: This is so much better than a Scorsese film. And then I was thinking: it’s like an amalgam of Scorsese/Stone/Herzog in the jungle and yet still better than all that because it’s so purely novelistic. There’s no romanticised glamour, no single pussy-conspiracy, and yet there is hard utility and madness in spades. And lots of casualties and curious reprieves. And the ever-present beam of Ellrrroy’s style, his signature, his obsessions cast in prose. I detect a clear filing and research mania. And also, when the files and theories and intuitions become open fact, their uselessness, which he knows and thinks beyond.

Maybe the word of the novel is ‘convergence.’ The people who lie, extort and maneuvre their criminal agendas, will ultimately cross paths and tactics with the righteous positive idealists (here, extreme Leftists). Their goals will converge, seek the same ends; controlled chaos. A line from page 506: ‘Her arc left matched his arc right in hate and specious rigor.’

I love how near the end there is all this unspoken communication by looks, intuition, vibe. It begins with the reading of reaction and eyes — how people react to names and dates. And then it fully becomes direct and near-mystical communication. Cue voodoo drug blends and the knowledge beyond conspiracy blubber. But also prone to error and misconception. And you realise it’s all Ellrrroy’s craft and metier.

Facts clicked in, redundant. Who gives a shit?

There’s no pat redemption in this world, only sudden or slow death, and or an ongoing watching, I think is the import of the Crutch arc. And since we have symp for him as mother-searcher/watcher, and as fey analogue for Young Ellrrroy, what does that make us?

Adam:
I loved / found deeply affecting the tie-up to Maria’s death. She edges around the players of the central plot — and how about that whopping back-to-the-20s chapter near novel’s end describing Joan’s mission against Hoover! — but is finally a minor player. That is, she’s a minor player who dies an exceptionally grisly and cruel death at the hands of Chick for no reason, it seems, other than a young man’s boredom and amorality. Also — for all we say about his plotting, there is NO REASON Don would enter the house with Maria’s corpse. He’s just reconning and ‘gets a feeling’ about the house. Curious and undermotivated, yet much hangs on it. Not a criticism, but the smallest slip. No?

The L.A. Chandler echoes here are strong, as in much of the book — though Crutch is obviously a far more flawed ‘hero’ than Chandler. This is the great unravelling of conspiracy, this death — a dead end, meaningless. You’re right, Ellroy’s smart enough to suggest the force of collusion continuing after the book’s end. But in this book, you finally don’t care much about the specifics — you’re not plot hungry in that way anymore. The boats are gorgeously, sadly drifted. The implications of post-novel time are given their due, ends are tied, and that’s it. Only novels can really do this well, this human feeling.

I think I know what you’re edging towards re: ‘fey analogues’, but I nonetheless found the italicised ending very touching, grave, complicated. It’s Ellroy writing himself back into a history he’s played no significant part in to resurrect, for a reader (an idealized woman, finally), for the sake of a personal lesson (Ellroy’s shame, his moral rectitude, his persistence in trying to redeem his life), his country’s history.

So yes — everything I said about the first two obviously applies — he plots like no-one. It was one of the most old-fashioned captivating reads I’ve ever had. It made me question what I want / enjoy in literature. Deeply.

I’m not sure the Dominican Republic sections work. But I love Tedrow’s burnout, his fade.

You see, I read Ellroy too personally. I’ve taken him up as some kind of hero. I don’t have any sodding distance. I don’t think he’s a sane person to admire.

I think I like the weight/counterweight of his personal obsessions and almost wearying mythologising balancing out his pure narrative drive. Storytelling is a gift, really. And personal obsessions are finally just for you, though others are occasionally invited in with success. Together, over the course of a novel, they complement each other — considering Ellroy knows readers who’ve made it to Rover’s stage know his entire story — perfectly, complicatedly.

And now I’m rambling. This is just to start perhaps. There might be more later.

Rino:
There is always more….

I was affected by the closure of the Holly arc — not the final shooting, but the withheld information like his fathering the girls, his watching their growth from a remote balcony, and the curious difficulty of love etc. That the girls will take on his name, that it was all so secret, and to what end? I found great pathos in there somewhere. Slightly more so than Crutch.

Adam:
The Holly stuff works very well too — I’d put my Crutch dependence (!) down to a slightly needy Ellroy fandom, and my admiration for the I’m-at-the-centre-of-your-history conceit. It wouldn’t work with a writer who hadn’t aired so much dirty laundry, and who was such a punk (old fashioned 50s definition) before he cleaned up.

I think it says a lot about where we’re respectively at. Still, the Holly material will probably strike me more on a reread, which is tempting at present, but must be delayed for obvious reasons. But come later in the year, I’m definitely hitting it again.

Rino:
Also, there’s the Click. I love the layered pleasure of the Click and chasing the Click in the last quarter of the book. First there’s the character (Crutch) who has a mild, connective click in piecing together some of the puzzle. It’s only half a click, but it leads somewhere, it tunes in when other ideas converge. A click in the memory, a snapping-to of truth in the Ellrrroyian sense of logical connection. There is the pleasure of the reader following this character’s click, sharing his mindspace. It’s a narrative trick, to be sure, which means it has to be carefully constructed and styled, supremely well-paced. Which means there’s a third pleasure in the click for Ellrrroy, masterfully cueing up the clues and connections. And which the reader also tunes into, Ellrrroy’s pleasure in the setup.

There’s almost something of psychoanalysis in all this, the unearthing of repressed or obscured memories, the bringing of the underneath to the conscious light of day — often after long search. And once it’s there — powerless. Which of course may go some way to explain (by parallel) the thinking and pleasurable appeal of conspiracy theorising and noirish narrative colour. That is, a long way of praising the pleasure of good writing, so well set up.

I’ll spray it again: is there anything as good as Ellrrroy?

Author: Rino Breebaart

Editor.

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