Book Reviews
Dec 1, 1995, 13:13


AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy; Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

I don't begin to read enough to gauge whether or not James Ellroy is truly one of the great American writers, but for my limited dollars and time he certainly is, and American Tabloid ought to mark his emergence from the specialized, perhaps disreputable area of crime fiction into outright fiction mastery. Ellroy's novels have always examined (with an unsparing eye) the traffic between criminals and police; with American Tabloid he wades right into the fetid political swamps of the post-war years and the rise of John F. Kennedy to the presidency.

These days it is oh so easy to buy into baby boomer nostalgia and look upon the Kennedy years as some lost chance at national reconciliation and the liberal's version of Reagan's “shining city on the hill.” Even given the buffoonish caricature (and by extension, the best friend the far right ever had) that Teddy has devolved into. That is bunk, of course, the money that fueled the rise of the Kennedy dynasty was made by Joe Sr. in the shadiest possible ways, using methods that, by comparison, make Richard Nixon look like a petty extortionist. What Ellroy lays out so well over the course of this book is that the currency the main characters trade in (for the benefit of their patrons in the Kennedy clan and/or the FBI) is violence, plain and simple. This trade is the cornerstone of any and all political power; Ellroy dedicates the book to the men that have to carry out this dirty work and the plot of the book circles around their axis.

The plot of American Tabloid digs around the FBI, the Teamsters, Howard Hughes, the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban exile movement, the Mafia and all the rest. As an admitted fan of Don Delillo's Libra, Ellroy has slanted his book towards the tangled roots all of the above events and actors shared, rather than the psychology of one man, and the feverish development of the plot is addictive to follow. As with Ellroy's Los Angeles Quartet, the main actors are law enforcement officers and fringe dwellers of the gray economy and much of the novel dwells on the convolutions of morality and action these guys go through day to day. Compartmentalization as a mental state is referred to again and again.

Simply put, American Tabloid is an essential book for lovers of good, snappy fiction, hardboiled crime and/or political intrigue. It will truly keep you glued to its pages.

-Bruce Adams

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