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Ellroy’s Vision

Conspiracy theories told the hard-boiled way.

Mar 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 23 • By JOEL SCHWARTZ
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Blood’s a Rover
by James Ellroy
Knopf, 656 pp., $28.95

Ellroy’s Vision

Because he writes books laced with profanity and graphic descriptions of violence, James Ellroy isn’t a writer to everyone’s taste. He is nonetheless the most intellectually ambitious writer of crime fiction in our time.

With the publication of Blood’s a Rover, Ellroy has completed what he calls the Underworld USA trilogy: three massive, complex novels that paint a haunting and horrifying picture of recent American history (1958-72). The books focus on the malign role played in that history by organized crime, rogue elements of the CIA, and (above all) J. Edgar Hoover, who is the central character of the trilogy. To my mind the books’ politics are repellent, but they are still very much worth reading—in particular the first volume, American Tabloid.

So what are the books’—and their author’s—politics? That question is disputed. In 2005 Ellroy was the subject of an admiring interview in which he stated bluntly “I’m not a liberal” and noted approvingly that “most cops are conservatives.” In other interviews he has gone further, describing himself as “a Tory by nature” who is “conservative by temperament.” Furthermore, Ellroy is clearly not an admirer of either John Kennedy or Bill Clinton: In the brief prelude to American Tabloid, speaking in his own name for the first and last time in the trilogy, he memorably declares that JFK—whom he depicts as a charming but shallow sexual athlete—was “Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab.”

But is Ellroy really a conservative? If we follow D. H. Lawrence’s advice and trust the “tale” rather than the artist, a different picture emerges. Ellroy’s books suggest that he is on the left and, in fact, the rather hard left. As it happens, the artist himself has lent support to this conclusion, in a statement in yet another interview: “America itself as an entity was founded on a bedrock of racism, slavery, land-grabs, and the slaughter of the indigenous people.” 

That judgment furnishes an interpretive key that helps make sense of the politics of the trilogy. All three novels explore vicious American racism—Mafia chieftains and J. Edgar Hoover being among the most vicious racists. All three novels indicate that American involvement in undeveloped countries (Cuba in the first book, Vietnam in the second, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the third) consists largely of support for Third World dictators who brutalize and oppress their impoverished subjects. Ellroy does not romanticize communism, but all of the books’ anti-communists are either far-right fanatics or greedy businessmen. Admirable, principled opponents of Communism on moral grounds are nowhere to be found.

Finally, the books embrace conspiracy theorizing in a big way. American Tabloid culminates in the assassination of JFK—murdered at the behest of organized crime, which was angered by Castro’s expropriation of its Cuban casinos (and then by Kennedy’s unwillingness to continue to try to oust Castro after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion), and by Robert Kennedy’s crusade against organized crime. (The assassination is given tacit permission by J. Edgar Hoover, who refers to it obliquely as a measure “of great boldness.” Lee Harvey Oswald was a fall guy; the real assassin, we learn in the next volume, was a rightwing French extremist.)

Mutatis mutandis, the next volume, The Cold Six Thousand, tells a similar story. This book culminates with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Both of these assassinations again receive tacit permission from Hoover: King’s assassination is an offshoot of an FBI campaign (orchestrated by Hoover) to discredit the civil rights leader; Mafia leaders are responsible for the RFK—as for the JFK—hit, because they know of (and fear) his intention to fight organized crime if he is elected president in 1968. (James Earl Ray and Sirhan Sirhan are, like Oswald, patsies, made use of by the actual assassins to obscure their own guilt.)

In short, the trilogy displays all of the nuanced political sophistication that we’ve come to expect from the musings of Gore Vidal. James Piereson’s Camelot and the Cultural Revolution might have been written with Ellroy in mind: The books manifest precisely the conspiratorial thinking and loathing for America whose post-1963 origins were so brilliantly explored by Piereson.

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