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
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.