Book review: American Tabloid

American TabloidAmerican Tabloid by James Ellroy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first in another history-minded trilogy, American Tabloid unpicks the hem of the myth of Camelot while keeping an eye on the main chance. The prose is as jacked-up as half the characters, and it moves forward with a terrifying urgency.

Like his other works, there’s a lot of character specificity and a lot of fine detail evoked. But the Underworld USA trilogy manages to more convincingly convey a sense of momentousness, of this-is-probably-how-it-happened. But it ain’t pretty.

Reading this book is a bit like being repeatedly punched in the face by History. You know something has happened, and you know it’s important and will leave lasting traces for the future. Though you can’t help but feel as if Events had taken you out to an alley and kicked shit out of you.

Importantly, though, you’re going to have to know History and Events to make sense of the barrage of blows. Ellroy makes no concession for any history classes you may have slept through: you’re expected to know the general Camelot story, about Howard Hughes’ druggy monomania (don’t worry, the Monty Burns casino period will suffice) and about the Mob, pro- and anti-Castro factions, federal agencies of varying stripes, and how they just might have combined to facilitate the head-exploded death of JFK. If you’re slow on the uptake, you’ll find this a real drag: there’s a lot you’ll miss.

I suspect there was a lot of research on this sucker. If Ellroy managed this off the cuff, then everyone else should pack up and go home.

There’s not a lot of sympathy for the Camelot crew here. Joe is evil, Bobby an axe-grinder and John a pants-man with more hair than sense. But they’re not the only people given a serve: mobsters are blowjob-seeking, food-spitting, foul-mouthed douchebags. Cuban escapees are all either psychotic, ball-less or a short trip away from a smack-induced death. It’s reductive, sure, but given the ground covered here it doesn’t detract too much from the story.

It’s ultimate conspiracy theory material, though it’s told so convincingly you’ll be firm in your belief that a gigantic hit-man, an alcoholic fucknut and a too-smooth game-player are responsible for THE defining event of the ’60s. Sure, there’s a lot of detail on big-name real-life figures – Hoover’s omnipresence is terrifyingly well-written – but the story hangs on a trio of fearsome opportunists, fleshed out with panache.

This is show-off writing, but it’s so compulsive you’ll forgive the author. It’s an almost perfect mix of speed, popcorn and history.

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