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Stephen King on the 'Blood's a Rover' audiobook

EW’s columnist thinks Craig Wasson’s reading of James Ellroy’s novel is majestic

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If you asked me to name the best living American novelist, I’d probably come up with 50 names. I might be able to winnow the list down to a dozen, then I’d have a nervous breakdown. But ask me to name the best living novelist who’s fierce, brave, funny, scatological, beautiful, convoluted, and paranoid — and who seems to feel that the real American Experience stopped happening right around the time Richard Nixon helicoptered away into obscurity — and it becomes simple: James Ellroy. If insanity illuminated by highly dangerous strokes of literary lightning is your thing, then Ellroy’s your man.

Blood’s a Rover (2009) is Ellroy at his best. I can’t tell you the plot, because I’m not sure I understand it. Even if I do, it would take at least four pages to fully explicate it. The thing is, it doesn’t matter. The novel carries you along on a wave of incident and strange, yammering beauty. It’s enough to say that it begins with an armored-car heist (1964), careens through a pair of crazed political conventions (1968), visits Haiti for a crash course in what Ellroy calls “zombification,” and ends in Washington with the death of J. Edgar Hoover (1972). Along the way we meet black militants, dwarf dictators, a detective who sports a plaid bow tie with the number of robbers he’s killed woven into it, a cop who beat his father to death with a golf club (with his stepmother for an accomplice), a sex-mad racist who lives in a bomb shelter he calls the Hate Hut, and a scalp-taking window peeper. Eat, Pray, Love it ain’t.

But the book’s not what I want to talk about, or not precisely. I want to talk about the audio version of the book. Which is pure, unadulterated magic.

Sometimes — not often — one wild talent meets another and they mesh instead of repelling or going nuclear. In the case of Blood’s a Rover, the second talent belongs to Craig Wasson. He’s a fine actor (Akeelah and the Bee, Ghost Story, Malcolm X), but a mad hot audio reader. The unabridged audio version of Blood’s a Rover is, quite simply, the best audiobook I’ve ever heard. And I’ve heard hundreds.

Good readers interpret novels and give them life (the late Frank Muller, who read many of mine, used to be a champ at that). Great readers seem to live inside the books they’re performing. Wasson is one of those. The audio of Blood’s a Rover is 26 hours long, and his voice held me mesmerized for that whole time. And it’s only his voice. Multiple readers have become something of a vogue in the audio-lit biz; at least three readers collaborate on the spoken version of Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper, and you hear four on The Help. Nothing wrong with that, but Wasson works the dark landscape of Ellroy country all by himself, and at times it’s like watching a blindfolded tightrope walker running on a high wire without a net.

There are a dozen major characters in Blood’s a Rover, and probably four dozen minor ones. They come in all ages and colors, not to mention at least three sexes: male, female, and God knows. Ellroy follows them (always on paranoid red alert) through what may have been America’s most bloody and dangerous eight years. Wasson keeps pace, handling them with understanding and eerie empathy, racing through an impressive gamut of voices in the process.

By the time I got to the eighth or ninth CD (I downloaded mine from Audible.com), I felt as if I were watching a movie with one guy playing all the parts…and knocking them all dead. Most notable is Wasson’s honking characterization of FBI director Hoover, who sounds like a Chamber of Commerce bigwig with a bad coke drip. Wasson also gives great Nixon before downshifting to a laughing, ominous voodoo chemist/hoodlum who calls everybody ”Baby Boy.”

Rover isn’t for everyone, certainly not for those with delicate sensibilities (or tummies). But if you can deal with the violence and the unrelenting flow of Ellroy’s and Wasson’s energy, it stands as a marvelous argument for oral storytelling. Critics of audiobooks — and there are quite a few of them, although their rationale for disliking the medium remains unclear to me — almost have to be silenced by a performance of this caliber. Spoken aloud by Craig Wasson, Blood’s a Rover lives and breathes.

For 26 hours, I never felt so privileged to be in my car.