Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Stuart Neville's Celebrate Reading Pick: AMERICAN TABLOID by James Ellroy

Today, we welcome Stuart Neville as our Celebrate Reading Month Guest Blogger.

About the Guest Blogger: Stuart Neville has been a musician, a composer, a teacher, a salesman, a film extra, a baker and a hand double for a well known Irish comedian, but is currently a partner in a successful multimedia design business in the wilds of Northern Ireland. THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST is his first novel.

America was never innocent. Thus begins James Ellroy's foreword to AMERICAN TABLOID, and just shy of six hundred pages later, he'll have you convinced.

AMERICAN TABLOID, the first book of the American Underworld Trilogy, is the story of three men who orbit John F. Kennedy's rise to power, his thousand days of presidency, and his ultimate assassination. These bad, bad men are satellites to a world of collusion, conspiracy and corruption. Kemper Boyd, G-man and scion of a once-wealthy dynasty, is driven by vanity and avarice, hoping to shine in Jack and Bobby Kennedy's reflected glory. Ward Littell, Boyd's fellow FBI agent, is a weak man willing to sell his soul to prove otherwise. Pete Bondurant is a man-mountain, a vicious thug in the employ of Howard Hughes and Jimmy Hoffa, looking for the big money, and happy to spill blood to get it.

All three are drawn like driftwood in a whirlpool to the epicentre of JFK's presidential campaign. They rally support from the CIA, the Mob, and Cuban exiles by aligning them all against a common enemy: Fidel Castro, the communist leader who seized power just miles from Miami; the treacherous heel who shafted the Outfit by nationalising their Havana casinos; the ruthless dictator who tortured and executed his Cuban countrymen. They're all convinced Bad-Back Jack is the man to take The Beard down. And when he doesn't deliver, all roads lead to Dallas.

In AMERICAN TABLOID, James Ellroy shifts his diamond-sharp gaze away from post-World War II Los Angeles, and broadens his canvas to cover the entire United States and beyond. It's the hard-as-nails bravura of THE BLACK DAHLIA, L.A. CONFIDENTIAL and WHITE JAZZ exploded to sully five years of American history. With an almost tangible glee, Ellroy drags the Kennedy clan through the mud, especially its patriarch, Joseph P. Along the way we meet a mind-boggling cast of historical figures: J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, Jack Ruby, Santo Trafficante, Sam Giancana, Carlos Marcello and more. Even Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe make appearances. The sheer scale of this story is awe-inspiring, and it's a Herculean feat of plotting and character development.

Like spy novelist John le Carré, keeping up with Ellroy's twists and turns is akin to listening to bebop jazz; if you try to follow every melody, chord and beat, you'll find yourself dizzy and disoriented. Instead, you must step back and take in the greater arcs, like finding the three-dimensional image in a Magic Eye picture by looking through it. But complexity is not the greatest challenge in reading James Ellroy; the biggest obstacle is your willingness to follow the author's dark paths.

I first read AMERICAN TABLOID about six or seven years ago while I was in the process of deciding Ellroy was my favourite author. This is the book that sealed the deal. More than that, it's the book that made me realise the depths a skilled writer can plumb while holding on to our empathy for his less-than-noble characters. Note the choice of word, there: empathy, not sympathy. Ellroy can bring you to the darkest reaches of the soul, force you to stare unblinking at the cruel perversions human beings are capable of, and send you away with those images seared on your mind - and he has the skill and courage to make you glad of the journey. That's the key thing I took away from AMERICAN TABLOID: an author's courage can take you places you never wanted to be, with people you never wanted to meet, and in the process teach you something about the nature of mankind.

Here's just one example of that courage in action: In a world whose morals are repugnant to us, most authors will have the protagonist stand apart from the mire. If racism, homophobia and misogyny were the order of the day, the protagonist will somehow be more enlightened than his fellow man. Not with Ellroy. For the most part, his three protagonists are every bit as bigoted and hate-filled as those around them. The self-proclaimed Demon Dog of Crime Fiction has no use for political correctness. His characters' world-views are as tainted as the money the fictionalised Kennedy dynasty was built on. In a novel where our heroes commit murder, peddle heroin, and plot the assassination of the leader of the free world, why should we expect them to be above such base prejudices? When you open an Ellroy novel, you make a pact with the devil to see how low a character can sink. If you haven't the stomach to go all the way, you'd better just close the book and put it back on the shelf.

It was this utter fearlessness that most impacted me and my writing. The greatest thing I've gained from Ellroy is the will to take my characters farther and deeper into the dark places than I, or the reader, might be comfortable with. When I'm tempted to tone a scene down, throw some artificial sympathetic trait on a character, or generally chicken out, it's AMERICAN TABLOID I remember.

In Ellroy's America, everyone has blood under their nails, from the lowest of street thugs, to the highest office in the land. That bleak and cynical outlook is carried through AMERICAN TABLOID's sequel, THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, and one can only imagine where he'll take us when BLOOD'S A ROVER, the trilogy's conclusion, emerges hot and bloody from its seven-year gestation. Since AMERICAN TABLOID's publication in 1995, we have seen world-changing events leading to the deposing of foreign dictators, the USA's good name muddied in the process, and the machinations of the super-rich in guiding foreign policy. Even as a new wunderkind seems set to charm his way into the White House like Kennedy almost half a century before him, one can't help but picture the cogs and wheels turning beneath the surface, and the faceless, nameless players moving through the shadows. James Ellroy's corrupt vision seems more prescient with every passing day.

In a strange and, for me, wonderful twist of fate, I now share James Ellroy's literary agent. Nat Sobel has been Ellroy's primary editor for more than twenty-five years. Nat very kindly agreed to answer a few questions about AMERICAN TABLOID.

Q - I was tempted to call AMERICAN TABLOID Ellroy's masterpiece, but browsing various articles and reviews it seems almost every one of his books is a masterpiece to someone. How do you see AMERICAN TABLOID's place in Ellroy's body of work?

A - I thought that AMERICAN TABLOID was the continuation of Ellroy’s style that had originated with LA CONFIDENTIAL, except that he was moving to a much broader picture of America, and away from LA cops and crime. James envisioned this as a trilogy, from the start, and knew that he wanted to portray the underside of this country in the 60’s and 70's. Unlike his previous quartet, the real villain will die at the end of the third volume. These books and the contemplated trilogy to come are Ellroy’s real masterpieces.

Q - AMERICAN TABLOID is a fairly lengthy book, but it's even bigger in terms of scope and ambition. From an editorial point of view, what were the particular challenges of tackling a novel of this scale?

A - James had always thought out each book long in advance (he told me the plot, scene-by-scene of the novel he is completing, three years ago) and starts each book with a detailed outline. The outline for TABLOID was 300 pages long. The current novel-in-progress has an outline over 400 pages long. Once we have edited the outline, the work proceeds pretty quickly.

Q - This book is famous for taking Ellroy's use of real historical figures to a new extreme, and few come out of it unscathed. Were there any legal ramifications?

A - The book and all subsequent novels are vetted by Random House’s attorneys. The real people mentioned, in many cases, are no longer among the living.

Many thanks to Nat for taking the time share this insight into one of my favourite novels, and to Moonrat for allowing me to share my love of this book.


JES said...

I had pretty much the same response to TABLOID as you, Stuart. Can't say that it changed my life or anything, but reading it was a thrill.

As you say, readers should not enter it unarmored. They're likely to emerge, pretty heavily scarred, before getting a third of the way into it.

Yet -- maybe it's the historical connection -- it's not like watching a bad Tarantino film, either. The rawness (of language, motivation, deed) never struck me as gratuitous.

Linda said...

Wow - this was great. I have not read ANYTHING by Ellroy, he always seemed so pulpy to me, but you got me convinced. Off to amazon... and happy for you your agent is the same as your hero's. Peace, Linda

Bernita said...

Brilliant ( both of you) - and the direct opposite of Burnett.

Charles Gramlich said...

That's a strong review and definitely raises this on my list of things I should check out. I've actualy never read Ellroy, perhaps to my shame.

Anonymous said...

Great review, and wonderful that Mr. Sobel agreed to answer some questions about the author as well.

I haven't read Ellroy, but I have a particular aversion to using real people in fiction. I understand the draw for the author and readers, bringing real personalities into this world makes it even more irresistable, and raises the stakes to a greater degree...

But on a personal note, being fiction, depending on how involved these real personalities are in the work, the author is giving motives and thoughts to real people he can't know... the fact that these people are no longer living makes it even more distasteful to me - they can't defend themselves in any measure, but the time frame is recent enough that their children and grandchildren bear the brunt of it...

Whether it's legally within the author's rights to do so is beside the point to me. I find it distasteful to turn a profit at the expense of an actual person's reputation and call it fiction.

Anonymous said...

Yep. Ellroy is underappreciated. He's easily among my top three favorites. He is unblinking, uncompromising and one of the best writers working today. In any genre. Great story-teller, brilliant and masterful narrative style. If you haven't read any of his work, run, don't walk and start reading.

Josephine Damian said...

the trilogy's conclusion, emerges hot and bloody from its seven-year gestation.

Where, oh, where did Mr. Neville come up with that image?


I'm must confess to be among the many who have not read Ellroy (but am proud to say I've read pretty much all of Wambaugh's books). Am alsp proub to among the lucky few to have already read THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST.

What I found most interesting is that Ellroy allows the agent/editor to have a role in the creative process at the outline stage.

Ello said...

Stuart - what an amazing review! And it was awesome to read Nat Sobel's Q&A. I only know LA Confidential from the movie which I loved. But I will definitely have to check out this book since it comes so highly recommended by you!

And then I'm going to be really excited to read the Ghosts of Belfast one day soon!

Mary said...

A great review! And a fascinating Q&A.

I was most interested to read about Ellroy’s protagonists being very much a part of their milieu.

Julie Weathers said...


I was deeply impressed with your thoughts on this book. Beautiful writing and revelations on your part.

Thanks to Mr. Sobel for adding his thoughts to this.


Julie Weathers said...

"but I have a particular aversion to using real people in fiction."

I do too, to an extent. Having said that, I have five years of research invested in a book based on a very famous figure of the old west. More correctly, his wife and their amazing love affair.

I felt I owed it to them to be as accurate as possible. To that end, the historian for their museum was impressed enough he opened all the private journals and letters to me.

Anyway, for me, I want to tell their story and it really is better than anything I could invent.

But, we all have our own path to walk and no one can take away Mr. Ellroy's genius. It takes a tremendous amount of work and talent to do what he does.

Conduit said...

Josie: I, um, might have read a similar phrase elsewhere and, er, appropriated it for use here. But imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. :)

Anonymous said...

A very interesting article. I came to it via your posting on imdb. I have been impatiently waiting for the conclusion of the trilogy since 2001. Did you manage to establish which characters will return? wikipedia seems to suggest female protagonists?! Quite a departure for Ellroy.

Conduit said...


Sorry I didn't see your post 'til just now. I don't have any details of plot or character specifics at this time. I'll post any info as and when I have it (there's something coming down the pipeline very soon, as it happens), thought I won't share any spoilers.