Ellroy's American Underworld

Nathaniel Rich reviews crime master James Ellroy’s latest novel, Blood’s A Rover, and explores his weird vision of ’60s America.

It was in L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy’s ninth novel, that he began dropping his articles, simple verbs, and even periods. This was not by choice, at least not at first. His editor, having rejected an early draft of the novel as too long, had given Ellroy two directives. First, Ellroy had to cut more than a hundred pages. Second, he was not to alter any aspect of the novel’s theme or plot; he could not even cut a single scene. So Ellroy sliced away the fat, and many of the tendons, too. An amphetamized lyricism emerged. A passage like: “Ed found it tough to read Thad Green’s motives. It was easier to read Chief Parker, because his face began to turn ugly colors,” became: “Thad Green tough to read. Parker simple—he turned ugly colors.” The telegraphic style, as Ellroy calls it, was born.

“The pleasures of Ellroy’s recent novels derive from his ability to dramatize complex historical events—the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, the construction of Las Vegas, the Red Menace and Black Power—at a heart-stopping pace.”

Ellroy employed this style in his next novel, White Jazz, because it suited the voice of his narrator—a paranoid, racist cop cruising L.A.’s black neighborhoods in 1958. The telegraphic style was then used to harrowing effect in My Dark Places, an unnerving, obsessive memoir about the murder of Ellroy’s mother when he was 10 and his failed attempt to find her killer some 35 years later. But it was in the first two volumes of his masterful Underworld USA Trilogy— American Tabloid and to an even greater extent The Cold Six Thousand—that the telegraphic style reached a manic crescendo. Ellroy shaved his independent clauses down to a single word (“as a result” became “resultant,” “at the same time” became “concurrent”); nouns became verbs (“They did heroin” became “They heroinized.”). Paragraphs were reduced to a single sentence. And sentences were limited to four words—or, if possible, two. Repetition accelerated the pace even further: “Wayne leaned down. Wayne aimed tight. Wayne shot his legs off at the knees. Blood spritzed. Bone chips flew. Wayne grabbed the towelettes.”

The prose is overcaffeinated, jittery-assed, and panic-attacky, to borrow several Ellroyisms. It seems only fitting that, in The Cold Six Thousand’s virtuosic climax, lovable hit man Pete Bondurant single-handedly murders six men on a yacht—all while having a heart attack. The pleasures of Ellroy’s recent novels derive from his ability to dramatize complex historical events—the assassinations of JFK, RFK, and MLK, the construction of Las Vegas, the Red Menace and Black Power—at a heart-stopping pace.

I spent a week with Ellroy last spring in Los Angeles, where he was finishing Blood’s A Rover, the final volume of the Underworld USA Trilogy. In person, Ellroy is not unlike his prose: amped, hyperbolic, ready to pounce. His beverage of choice is a quadruple espresso on the rocks.

And yet, over the course of more than a dozen hours of conversation—the basis for a Paris Review Art of Fiction interview—a different Ellroy emerged: somber, candid, even pensive. He spoke frequently of the women in his life and their mellowing influence on him. Female characters are at the heart of many of his novels, as phantoms and objects of abject devotion. The surprise of Blood’s A Rover is that its women are not just strong, but powerful. There’s Karen Silfakis, a redheaded UC Santa Barbara history professor with commie sympathies who has her hooks into J. Edgar Hoover’s top G-Man; knife-scarred cougar Joan Rosen Klein, a violent leftist radical, also with FBI ties; and Mary Beth Hazzard, a black woman who manages to seduce MLK’s assassin. While Ellroy’s men blunder into violence, his women steal into the shadows, shaping history.

As if under the influence of these sure-handed heroines, the prose has calmed down, too; it’s gone off the caffeine. It needed to— Blood’s A Rover is a more thoughtful, searching book than its predecessors. Though the action takes place between 1968 and 1972, Ellroy is less concerned with Miami, Chicago, and Watergate than with understanding why major ideological transformations occur in the first place. And the ideological transformations in Blood’s A Rover are extreme, even disorienting at times. Characters pass from leftist radicalism to arch conservatism and back again, flirting, along the way, with black militancy, white supremacy, and voodoo shamanism. Ellroy pauses at every marker, examining the intoxications of zealotry, but ultimately casts them all aside. Politics may be his subject, but it is not his focus. In the trilogy, as in all of his previous novels, his characters are driven by a desperate hope for redemption—a redemption that usually comes in the form of a strong woman.

At one point in Blood’s A Rover, one of these strong women says, “Your options are do everything or do nothing.” Ellroy has chosen; this book is his answer.

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Nathaniel Rich is an editor at The Paris Review and the author of The Mayor's Tongue . He lives in New York City.