Category: James Ellroy

book review – American Tabloid – James Ellroy


This is a real doorstopper of a book running around the 600 page mark and it’s content is almost just as heavy as James Ellroy charts the backdrop leading up to the assassination of JFK.

Using a trio of characters that are connected to some of the major figures of the early 1960s Ellroy weaves in between good and evil highlighting, if the point needed making, that there are no saints in a world of politics, mafia, drugs and power.

So you get Pete Bondurant the ex-cop turned hired gun who works for Howard Hughes teaming up with Kemper Boyd the FBI man working for Hoover while playing the Kennedys’ who are desperate to be elected. Thrown into the mix is Ward Littell an FBI man who starts as a friend of Kemper and an enemy of Pete but shows that under the influence of money and the desire for self preservation he can trade friendships for personal gain without too much trouble.

But the star attraction in this story is the history of the period. Kemper and Pete are brought together through the opportunity to make some money from both criminals and government bodies who want Castro out of Cuba. The problem is that the muddled Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 leaves them and their backers with failure. The other major strand is the battle against Robert Kennedy and the mob and in particular Jimmy Hoffa. The Teamster union boss is seen to have been abusing the union funds and throughout the book Robert Kennedy is trying to prove that through the work of law abiding citizens like Ward Littell.

On top of those duel strands are a host of characters that underline just how exciting and crazy this was in terms of being around and a player in the US in the early 1960s. Frank Sinatra mixes with mafia bosses. Howard Hughes starts to go mad as he moves to Vegas and the Kennedy machine wins the presidency and then fails to patch over the conflict between the corruption that got them there and the desire to be seen as changing the system.

The bullets that were fired in Dallas are the culmination of a political poker game that is being played for the highest stakes. Castro might be shouting out about communism but for those that have seen their casions and income from Cuba cut this is about power and control. For the Kennedy’s Ellroy has an uneasy difference between the brothers with Jack the realist and his brother Bobby the firebrand on a mission. The failure of either to correct the inadequacies of the other also forced disaster.

But as the story of Kemper the once star of the Kennedy entourage and then failed Cuban exiled leader and drug runner shows all too clearly the winds of change were blowing so strongly during the late 1950s and early 1960s that the chance to master them was beyond even the most capable of political players.

On to book two of the Underworld USA series…

Advertisements

book review – American Tabloid – James Ellroy


This is a real doorstopper of a book running around the 600 page mark and it’s content is almost just as heavy as James Ellroy charts the backdrop leading up to the assassination of JFK.

Using a trio of characters that are connected to some of the major figures of the early 1960s Ellroy weaves in between good and evil highlighting, if the point needed making, that there are no saints in a world of politics, mafia, drugs and power.

So you get Pete Bondurant the ex-cop turned hired gun who works for Howard Hughes teaming up with Kemper Boyd the FBI man working for Hoover while playing the Kennedys’ who are desperate to be elected. Thrown into the mix is Ward Littell an FBI man who starts as a friend of Kemper and an enemy of Pete but shows that under the influence of money and the desire for self preservation he can trade friendships for personal gain without too much trouble.

But the star attraction in this story is the history of the period. Kemper and Pete are brought together through the opportunity to make some money from both criminals and government bodies who want Castro out of Cuba. The problem is that the muddled Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 leaves them and their backers with failure. The other major strand is the battle against Robert Kennedy and the mob and in particular Jimmy Hoffa. The Teamster union boss is seen to have been abusing the union funds and throughout the book Robert Kennedy is trying to prove that through the work of law abiding citizens like Ward Littell.

On top of those duel strands are a host of characters that underline just how exciting and crazy this was in terms of being around and a player in the US in the early 1960s. Frank Sinatra mixes with mafia bosses. Howard Hughes starts to go mad as he moves to Vegas and the Kennedy machine wins the presidency and then fails to patch over the conflict between the corruption that got them there and the desire to be seen as changing the system.

The bullets that were fired in Dallas are the culmination of a political poker game that is being played for the highest stakes. Castro might be shouting out about communism but for those that have seen their casions and income from Cuba cut this is about power and control. For the Kennedy’s Ellroy has an uneasy difference between the brothers with Jack the realist and his brother Bobby the firebrand on a mission. The failure of either to correct the inadequacies of the other also forced disaster.

But as the story of Kemper the once star of the Kennedy entourage and then failed Cuban exiled leader and drug runner shows all too clearly the winds of change were blowing so strongly during the late 1950s and early 1960s that the chance to master them was beyond even the most capable of political players.

On to book two of the Underworld USA series…

American Tabloid – post VI

I am not going to lie and say that this was a page turner. It is a big book and at moments it really felt like it. What made life difficult is the patches when the pace seemed to dip.

Set against the true historical events of the Bay of Pigs and the lead up to Kennedy’s assassination the last part does finally get you going as the moment when the fatal shots are fired draws closer.

The characters of the smooth FBI man Boyd, psycho killer Pete and loser Ward are reversed as each suffers a change in fortunes and heart. At the end the only constants are the hatred that Hoover has for anyone threatening his position, the ability of the mob to protect their own and take revenge and the leadership of Castro in Cuba.

Jack Kennedy is portrayed as the best way of hurting Bobby Kennedy and reminding old Joe Kennedy where his loyalties should have been lying.

In a cast that involves walk ons for Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford and Jack Kennedy this is an America of glamour.

But with the race riots, KKK and the Cuban exiles it is also a divided country ill at ease with itself.

The fact Ellroy gives you that sort of picture as a background to a thriller shows you the ambition with the social observation and the research he has done about this period in history.

American Tabloid – post V

As the story starts to focus on the Bay of Pigs invasion of nCuba in 1961 it gathers its own momentum. But oddly the invasion is seen at arms length with none of the main characters directly involved.

It gives the reader a reminder that the Cuban story is not necessarily the main focus here and the characters are going to live beyond those events.

Where it does leave things is in a mess as the invasion fails. Drugs have not only become the occupation for Kemper and Pete but in the former’s case under the influence of Kennedy have become a habit.

That means that Cuba is increasingly sidelined and drugs, profits and self preservation become the order of the day.

The weaving of fact and fiction is enjoyable and with so many extreme characters hanging around from Howard Hughes down to Jimmy Hoffa it is an explosive time waiting to end in Kennedy’s assassination.

More tomorrow…

American Tabloid – post IV

At the risk of annoying Ellroy fans I have to confess that I’d hoped to be getting through this a little bit quicker. Maybe it’s me and not the book but this is a lot slower going than I’d hoped.

Maybe some of the problem is the use of real history. As a result things are constrained in a way a completely fictional setting might not have suffered from. Mind you it’s against the backdrop of an incredible few years that makes this work. So I can only conclude it’s my problem. With things developing between the main two characters Boyd and Pete the clock is ticking down towards the bay of pigs invasion and with both characters banking on a victory you sense the failure there is going to have am impact on plot and pace.

Planning to get through it in the week ahead…

American Tabloid – post III

There are some of the scenes in Oliver Stone’s JFK where the back story about the mob and Cuba is pieced together that reminds you of the territory that Ellroy is heading into in American Tabloid.

There are numerous characters that are on the extreme end of the spectrum and maybe it was the inability to suppress all of their different demands that meant something dramatic in the 1960s was inevitable.

Those of us not living in the US often think of the 1960s as Kennedy, Johnson, the great society and Vietnam. We tend to forget Cuba and the impact that Castro had. But for those involved with crime Castro was bad news and for politicians talking tough about the Red threat having one on the doorstep was also difficult to swallow.

So although this is heading into a Bay of Pigs history lesson this is a part of the Kennedy story that most people would be least familiar with and that makes the 500 plus pages journey one that is slightly easier to go on with.

American Tabloid – post II

In some respects the story starts to become more complicated but the overall pace and direction clearer. This might on one level be about the Teamsters and Hoffa and corruption. But on another it is about the Kennedy brothers and their plans to shake things up.

In that relationship Bobby is the more determined to change the world with Jack happy to skip between beds of women he takes a fancy too and not too particular about talking with mobsters.

At the top of the tree the Kennedy’s exist in a world with Howard Hughes and Hoover but underneath, and not too far below, there are those they rely on to kill, punish and secure favours on their behalf. It is the ability to mix in both of those strata that makes American Tabloid so gripping and so believable.