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Book review: <i>American Tabloid</i> by James Ellroy

I don’t think the thrill of a good conspiracy can be underestimated. And, while the Kennedy era and the surrounding assassination, drugs, mafia, CIA/FBI, Cuba and, a bit later, Vietnam aren’t quite the dinner party circuit agenda, they were not so long ago and they still hold a spark of interest for a good couple of generations of people. Take me as an example, for instance. I was born in 1980, well after the whole malarkey. But, I still know the names of the Kennedy brothers and their assassins, and Jimmy Hoffa, and an entire selection of corrupt government officials. I’ve heard the speculation. I’ve seen the movies. And nothing has grabbed me quite so much as James Ellroy’s take on the whole thing. I know it’s fictitious speculation. That doesn’t stop it from being a dirty, rollicking thrill of a read with a cast of duplicitous double agents and their complex juggling of events. In fact, one of the most admirable traits of the book is how much behind the scenes action occurs in concert with the facts.

The story

American Tabloid focuses primarily on FBI agents Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell and ex-cop, all-round scary guy Pete Bondurant, and the interactions and intrigues of these gentlemen with a range of famous faces: the Kennedys, Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Jack Ruby... the list and the collusion goes on. The book covers a five year period, from the end of 1958 to the end of 1963, and is divided into five sections. Obviously, it’s not going to matter if I give you a run down; it’s not like I’ll ruin the major plot line! Boyd, Littell and Bondurant get their fingers in lots of pies, both together and separately. They are all unique in character and undergo many personal changes and alliances during the five year setting of American Tabloid. There is a lot of clever speculation in the story; how the Marylin Monroe/JFK interlude came about, why the Bay of Pigs was such a fiasco, what the Kennedy family dynamics were, the evil mastermind-ishness of J. Edgar, and, of course, the REAL reason that JFK was assassinated and why. Interspersed throughout the book are the ups and downs of Boyd, the triple agent with a love for the Kennedy brothers that just won’t quit; Littell, the fiercely moralled ex-Jesuit who ends up with the mob; and Bondurant, who has a taste for violence and gets exactly what he wants, period. The intrigue that James Ellroy has managed to create is frankly amazing, if not a tad convoluted.

The Style

James Ellroy is talented. Extremely talented. The style of American Tabloid leaves you feeling like you’ve been machine-gunned with short, fast sentences that are simple and right to the point. Yet Ellroy somehow manages to convey so much subtext into this literary barrage. It’s quite a talent. Ellroy uses repetition as a device in some paragraphs, which is good because he certainly doesn’t give the reader any leniency or explain anything. Reading American Tabloid is akin to being air-dropped into the late fifties with no map and landing amongst a whole load of bloodthirsty, fast-talking, white guys all intriguing around each other to try and come out top dog. American Tabloid is written in third person omniscient perspective, which suits as the book reads a little like a big secret file, including “document inserts” and transcripts of conversations between characters. It helps to know the big names in the story beforehand, and having at least a familiarity with them would be useful too, because as I mentioned above, Ellroy doesn’t explain anything. The pace is so frenetic and the conspiracies and twists so continuous that this book has to be read with your eyes wide open and with your full attention. It is as though the story is being told by a particularly vicious spirit of the era, and at times I found the slang difficult to understand.

There’s a lot of racist and sexist terminology used in the book, but it really goes along with that hardboiled style. None of the characters are particularly nice, nor are they people that you would want to befriend and have dinner with for their enlightened ideals. Ellroy does delve into some racial politics later on, which is also very interesting and based in what I’m assuming is historical fact. The pace does become more frenetic towards the end (you won’t believe it’s possible, but it does!) and you do end up on the edge of your seat, even though what happens is a matter of historical record. All in all, this story is massively complex and excellently written.

Who is this book for?

Not for the faint of heart, or for the reader who wants a light and mindless reading experience. This is a heavy duty, no holds barred, big time conspiracy/thriller, and it requires the reader’s full engagement. Thoroughly recommended for anyone who even has a mild interest in the Kennedy assassination or the sixties as an era. Also recommended for anyone who hates thrillers in general because they are trashy, but wants to read some nasty, dirty thriller literature.

If you like this book, you would also like...

Okay. So this is part of a series of three books. The Cold Six Thousand is next (which I have also read and enjoyed, and next time I have a copy available to me I will review it) and it is great too, along the same vein. Furthermore, read any of James Ellroy’s other books (for example The Black Dahlia). Because there is no denying his place as one of America’s top twentieth century authors.

In short

Title: American Tabloid
Author: James Ellroy
Publisher: Ballantine Books
ISBN: 044900907
Year published: 1995
Pages: 576
Genre(s): Contemporary literature, Hardboiled, Political
Review Type: