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American Tabloid

Reviewed: March 7, 2003
By: James Elroy
Publisher: Vintage Books
576 Pages, $21.00

It took me an unusually long time to read this book. The length wasnít the problem, nor was the story itself or the quality of the writing. No, what kept me pecking away at the 100 chapters between these covers was the effect that the book had on me as I was reading it.

Essentially, it was this. Every hundred pages or so I felt like my imagination needed a bath. My solution was to set the book down for a bit and read something else. I finished five other books while I was reading American Tabloid.

My previous exposure to Elroyís work was L.A. Confidential, which I first saw as a movie and then listened to as an audio tape. Both versions of the story were high impact material, featuring a hard-boiled detective style with an edge. I think only Hammetís nasty novel Red Harvest was the last book I read in which so many of the central characters were quite that unpleasant. Iím guessing that both the movie and the reading were fairly watered down versions of the original story.

American Tabloid easily surpasses those contenders for sheer unpleasantness. Of the three central characters in the book not one of them is anyone I would ever want to know in real life. Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell are former FBI agents who work as back room boys for the CIA, the White House and the Mob. Pete Bondurant is a former L.A. cop who begins the story working for Howard Hughes and ends as a CIA contractor.

Kemper is a control freak, a man from a wealthy background whose family lost its money and who is determined to get back the status that wealth can buy. Fascinated by the Camelot aura of the Kennedy family, he does his best to become indispensable to them while simultaneously drawing pay cheques from the FBI and the CBI for clandestine operations.

Ward is a one-time Jesuit seminarian who decided to work on his massive guilt load by working for the FBI, only to find that J. Edgar Hoover was much more interested in games of power than in law enforcement. He drinks to drown his guilt.

Pete tried to bury his Quebec roots by becoming something of an uber-American: devoted to capitalism, his-country-right-or-wrong, where the end always justifies the means.

These gentlemen are bloody threads in the tapestry of this novel, woven through key events of the late 1950s and early 60s, events running from 1958 to 1963. The warp and woof of their relationship would be measured by the degree of power that each has over the other. This is a constantly shifting measurement, a rotation in which first one and then the other achieves ascendancy in their complex personal and professional relationships.

The tapestry includes such pictures as the long Kennedy campaign for the presidency, the Cuban Revolution, the War on Crime, the Bay of Pigs Invasion, and, as you must have guessed from the time span, the JFK assassination itself. (And here you all thought it was really the Cigarette Smoking Man from the X-Files...)

The very choice of subject means that Elroy has to drop a lot of names. Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, Howard Hughes and a long list of famous mobsters are all on stage with the authorís invented characters. I always wonder why people donít get sued when they use this trick. Perhaps itís because there is so much dirt under the rocks that no one wants to turn them any further in an effort to refute obvious lies. In the case of the Kennedys, maybe they like the fact that the book dismisses the legendary liaison between Jack and Marilyn Monroe.

Elroy lends verisimilitude to the tale by telling it in a variety of ways. The standard narrative style rotates through the three main characters, but he also has wiretap transcripts, ďsecretĒ tape recordings, pseudo-government documents, memos, reports, analysis of the reports, letters, extracts from the tabloids, and headlines from what seem to be real newspapers. All of these narrative tricks are tossed at us in variety of type sizes and fonts, just to give the book the look of having been assembled almost like a dossier.

All of this makes for a very effective story, one which purports to chronicle the events that took place in our neighbour to the south while I was still in elementary school. I would like to think that it wasnít quite this easy for men with low moral standards and so little regard for others to influence events on the national stage and hold so much invisible power. The thought that there is nothing clean and righteous out there is a sobering thought - the one that sent me to cleaner books with less ambiguous tales to tell as a purgative - but itís also a thought which kept bringing me back, like a reluctant driver moving past a car accident, just to see how it all turned out in the end.

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