The hardier among you may remember the early James Ellroy, a ferociously sadistic pulp fictioneer whose crime novels seemed unsure of the balance between "law" and "order," much less good and bad. Ellroy's cops were as likely to be perverted fetishists as his criminals (Blood on the Moon), his writerly sympathies apt to linger over the problems faced by the serial murderers (Killer on the Road) whose pathologies most authors would attribute to a few childhood traumas. This Ellroy was a druggy, angry paperback brutalist whose antisocial impulses made him a highly unlikely candidate for mainstream appeal.
But then he cleaned up, at least a little. More of you will recall Ellroy's fertile middle period, and his "L.A. Quartet," which dug up enough dirt to fill a newsstand's worth of sleazy Fifties tabloids. Most famous among these was L.A. Confidential, whose spiraling plot approximately triples the storylines that made it into the movie version. Rewriting the West Coast's middle decades, Ellroy dragged icons like Walt Disney and Joe Friday of Dragnet into the murk of officially sanctioned racial violence, sexual violence, and plain corruption that he saw crystallizing in the famously unsolved Black Dahlia murder case of 1947. For him, the enterprise and excitement of the Southern California boom were a gigantic lie to conceal the festering ugliness beneath, and all anyone could expect to counter it was an occasional measure of heroism by men who should, and usually did, know better.
And then Ellroy decided to widen his scope yet again. White Jazz, the last of the quartet, marked a stylistic breakthrough of sorts. Written in a sort of angry shorthand, White Jazz fragmented experience and description so severely as to suggest a hard-boiled Céline, hurrying to scribble down the barest fragments of what was happening around him before the perpetrators vanished. Walking right along the line of self-parody ("The job: Take down a bookie mill, let the press in--get some ink to compete with the fight probe," the novel begins), this new-model prose aims to present absolutely everything with a rush of immediacy, a jangly buzz that captures the briskness of cop talk and soldier talk without stopping for feelings, explanation, or charity. You may have to read his flashbulb paragraphs several times before the shards of detail cohere into anything meaningful.
Following American Tabloid--the story of the Kennedy assassination--Ellroy's new sequel, The Cold Six Thousand (Knopf), tightens his prose even further, banishing almost every adverb and adjective in its rush to tell. "Bob extolled Vietnam nonstop. It was hot. It was groovy. It was Cuba on Meth," goes one entirely typical paragraph. Unsurprisingly, his take on Sixties America pretty much recalls his take on Forties and Fifties L.A. Picking up his story just after the murder in Dallas, Ellroy hits upon every fringe/underground activity you'd imagine: Far-right wackos churn out anti-Communist and anti-integration tracts; Howard Hughes mainlines Mormon blood to stay alive; J. Edgar Hoover connives to get JFK and RFK out of the way, not to mention MLK; Cubans scheme to topple Fidel and get their homeland back; the U.S. government has its paws all over everything; and what about this little country in Southeast Asia?
In telling this story, Ellroy follows his trio of little guys, each of them compromised in his own host of ways. (You'll need a three-dimensional flowchart to keep track of the shifting allegiances not just of each major character, but of the minor ones as well.) Ward Littell, a onetime Jesuit, worked for the FBI before becoming a mob lawyer, but then Hoover wooed him back after Bobby Kennedy denied him a job. We first see him heading to Dallas to cover up the bureau's tracks in the JFK hit ("Do you think the single-gunman consensus will hold?" Hoover asks him. "I'll do everything I can to ensure it," he promises). After this, Littell multitasks, simultaneously working for the FBI, Hughes, and organized crime while also siphoning off profits to help King's civil-rights crusade.
Pete Bondurant began as Hughes's bodyguard before contracting out to Jimmy Hoffa, the CIA, and drug dealers. He will later lead raids on Cuba, whack a bunch of guys who deserve it, and organize male-prostitution, drug, and celebrity-dirt rings from a cab stand in Vegas. (He is, sort of, the hero.) And so on.
This book is energetic, packed with event and spin, boundless in its determination to astonish the reader with some new connection among "legitimate" and "illegitimate" organizations. Linked by drug money, anti-Communism, and hatred for the Kennedys, Ellroy's cops and robbers find they have much more in common than they do with anyone outside their little world. (The shadowy J. Edgar Hoover, all sordid sexuality, twisted bureaucratic drive, and slippery racial hatred, is tailor-made for the Ellroy treatment.) Yet a perverse sort of optimism is also at work: For all of his fascination with ugliness and love for sadistic sexual violence, Ellroy can't help remaining a moralist at heart, convinced that somehow his new telling of these stories will drop the veil from the reader's eyes. What one would do with this knowledge, I have no clue. God help him, Ellroy still believes.
But there is something finally exhausting and numbing about this worldview--as if the author had finally succumbed to his own enveloping sense of the world's bleakness and decided to deny not just all hope, but even its possibility. Ellroy's world is all underbelly, all secret cabals, sex scandals, routine police brutality, mob hits at the behest of rich businessmen. That may well have been true for the author once--anyone who has read his memoir, My Dark Places, understands that Ellroy and random, crude evilness made an early and unforgettable acquaintance--but how many of his readers can honestly subscribe to a vision so unremittingly dark? How long can this by now well-respected and well-compensated writer continue to paint panoramas of slime? Ellroy's inability or unwillingness to lighten up even a little smacks more than a bit of adolescent doom. I for one am tiring of his insistence that goodness is usually a mistake by those who are too tired to do evil, that idealism can only warp its bearer. He's got one more in this latest trilogy to go (Watergate, anyone?), but this is where I get off.