In James Ellroy’s bleak crime novels, the cynicism is as calculated as it is in a Quentin Tarantino film but a lot more infectious. Finding midnight glamour in the sleaziest precincts of popular culture, and influenced, it seems, by everything from gossip-columnese and hipster lingo to the fizzy, go-for-all-throats prose of mid-century scandal magazines, Ellroy (White Jazz, L.A. Confidential) sprays declarative sentences like machine-gun bullets, blasting to kingdom come all notions of justice, heroism, and simple decency.
American Tabloid presents us with yet another fictional re-creation of the century’s most notorious murder mystery: Who killed JFK? According to Ellroy’s scenario (bizarre, for sure, but a lot more persuasive than Oliver Stone’s), the sharpshooters were Corsican and Cuban, the operation was partly though unwittingly financed by Howard Hughes, and the conspirators were a handful of Mafia dons abetted by rogue agents from the FBI. The motive? Revenge for the Bay of Pigs fiasco –and to ensure, with the ascension of Lyndon B. Johnson, the removal of racket-busting Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
”It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars,” writes Ellroy in his gruff, almost crowing introduction. ”It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time. Here’s to them.” But while you and I may not feel like joining the author in a complimentary toast, there’s no denying that his principal bad men are a fascinating bunch.
Kemper Boyd, a Southern blue blood with a Yale law degree, is a genius at juggling loyalties while never losing sight of his primary allegiance to himself. At the request of J. Edgar Hoover, Boyd pretends to quit the bureau in 1957 and lands a job as a lawyer on the McClellan Senate committee investigating union crime, on which the elder Kennedy served as a senator and the younger as a lawyer. While passing information back to Hoover, Boyd also ingratiates himself with the Kennedy clan and finds himself comfortably entrenched in the Kennedy administration after the 1960 election. Boyd’s friend Ward Littell, a G-man assigned to harass Communists in Chicago, wants desperately to hunt bigger game; like his idol, Robert Kennedy, he yearns to bag Jimmy Hoffa. Littell gets his chance, but as typically happens in Ellroy’s America, idealism, when countered by the promise of big money, has a life expectancy of about two minutes.
How a pair of ambitious, Kennedy-smitten FBI agents, abetted by a French-Canadian hulk named Pete Bondurant, end up plotting to murder the President in Dallas is ugly, brutal, dispiriting stuff, but it makes for a superb thriller as bloody as it is unwholesomely comic. You finish wishing, deep in your heart, that you could argue with Ellroy’s take on the Camelot era as an off-color joke — a time when shakedown artists, double-dealing politicians, godfathers, and soldiers of fortune all ”rode shotgun to History” — and thinking that you ought to feel ashamed for having had such a good time. A