Fiction: "Blood's a Rover," by James Ellroy
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Politics junkies will savor "Blood's a Rover," James Ellroy's new 656-page doorstop about powerful, corrupt men who subvert the world in order to rule it. Almost exactly the same size as "The Cold Six Thousand," its flawed 2001 predecessor, this spans 1968-'72, the final installment of Ellroy's "Underworld USA" trilogy.
It revisits many characters from "Cold," including a ghoulish Howard Hughes, a squirmy Sal Mineo, and J. Edgar Hoover, whom Ellroy depicts as a closet homosexual sliding toward senility. Like "Cold," which covers 1963-'68, it's more fascinating than moving. Still, it ultimately has more heart. One reason may be female characters that, unlike many of the men, are not only complicated but also caring.
There are few pretty pictures in this book, which takes its title from an A.E. Housman poem. But there is plenty of action, in various American cities (Los Angeles and Las Vegas are key), Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.
Ellroy contextualizes expertly, bringing everyone from a swish Leonard Bernstein to a randy Redd Foxx to a junkie Sonny Liston onto his lurid playing field, and he's done enough research to render plausible his historical speculations.
You'll definitely want to pull out your 45 of Archie Bell and the Drells' 1968 hit, "Tighten Up." I hope you kept your record player.
But, as in the earlier book, Ellroy hasn't lavished enough attention on character, a deficit his stylistic razzle-dazzle can't paper over. Mastery of the cheap thrill doesn't carry no matter how amusing.
God knows there's plenty of razzle-dazzle, from typographic variety to inner musings to redacted documents to transcripts of phone conversations. The vernacular is pitch-perfect, the detail convincing. The novel feels lived-in, whether Ellroy is treating the Los Angeles "wheelman community, these hot-car guys who tail the cheating spouses to their extramarital rendezvous" or Haiti, where Wayne Tedrow Jr. (the "hero" of "Cold") confronts his destiny.
This is part of what Tedrow sees there:
"The revelers wore machetes in scabbards. Their masks were blood-smeared. The air was scent-thick: reptile powder and poultry musk."
You can smell the place.
The plot drivers are Tedrow, a mercenary who helps Howard Hughes take over Las Vegas; Donald Crutchfield -- aka the "peeper" and more vulgar monikers -- who helps the Mob destabilize the Dominican Republic, irritate Cuba and demean Haiti; and Dwight Holly, an FBI agent whom Hoover fondly regards as a semi-wayward son but is actually working against Hoover and for Richard Nixon.
All these men are plagued by duality and conflicting loyalties. Various plot lines intersect, then spin off; among the most provocative is the notion of "Operation Baaad Brother," Hoover's effort to destabilize the Black Panthers via heroin sales (remember that paranoid notion of the late '60s?) by raising the profile of other competing "black power" groups, cleverly named the Black Tribe Alliance and the Mau-Mau Liberation Front.
Key to this undercurrent is the gay, on-again, off-again L.A. policeman Marshall Bowen, a "victim and provocateur" who is one of the more insightful and tormented players.
Ellroy launches the novel with a terse, brutal account of an armed robbery in 1964 involving three masked men. LAPD Sgt. Scotty Bennett kills two, but the third gets away. The search for that man -- who and where he is, why he did what he did, what happens to the money and the emeralds he got away with -- underlies the whole book, binding Tedrow, Crutchfield and Holly to their employers and their mysterious loves, Joan Rosen Klein, Karen Sifakis and Celia Reyes.
The novel, which can bring on headaches because of Ellroy's celebrated, but wearying, staccato style, finally becomes a largely fascinating, patchwork meditation on politics, race and gender.
There's lots of lust, strikingly rare sex and just a little love. Ellroy, who touts himself as the hardest of the hard-boiled noir writers, ultimately comes down on the side of love at the end, providing warmth that finally, fortunately deepens a book whose very bravura can be maddeningly distracting. Ellroy has said he won't explore Watergate, which he hints at here, because too much has been written about it already. It will be curious to see what he tackles next and whether he can craft a novel that runs on affection rather than anger and bile.
First Published October 11, 2009 12:00 am