The Heart of Nixonian Darkness

By Bill Sheehan
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 22, 2009


By James Ellroy

Knopf. 640 pp. $28.95

James Ellroy's "Blood's a Rover" is the final volume in a massive, enormously complex trilogy of crime novels collectively titled "Underworld USA." The publisher describes this new book as a "standalone sequel," and it can, in fact, be read on its own. Still, it's best viewed as an integral part of a larger, organic whole that examines, in unsparing detail, some of the most traumatic moments in recent American history.

The series began in 1995 with "American Tabloid," a violently revisionist account of the Camelot era. Moving from 1958 through November 1963, the novel mixes real historical figures (the Kennedys, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, J. Edgar Hoover) with fictional characters (the sort of renegade law-enforcement officers that Ellroy does so well), using them to illuminate the defining events of the period: the 1960 presidential election, Castro's Cuban revolution and the ongoing war between Robert F. Kennedy and the world of organized crime.

"Cold Six Thousand" (2001) begins moments after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and ends, more than four years later, in the turbulent summer of 1968. Once again, Ellroy mixes real and fictional characters in a byzantine creation that ranges from the corridors of power in Washington to the mob-controlled casinos of Las Vegas to the poppy fields of Southeast Asia.

Now, eight years later, we have "Blood's a Rover," an even wilder ride through history than its extravagant predecessors. Written in the clipped, telegraphic prose that Ellroy first developed in "L.A. Confidential" (1990), "Blood's a Rover" compresses vast amounts of incident and information into every paragraph, offering the reader a singular experience: total immersion in the details and ambiance of the Nixon era.

The novel opens in June 1968, in the immediate aftermath of the latest wave of assassinations. Before proceeding with his primary narrative, Ellroy gives us a brief, bloody prologue set in Los Angeles in 1964, in the course of which masked robbers steal a fortune in cash and emeralds from an armored car, leaving a small mountain of corpses in their wake. Echoes of this robbery reverberate through everything that follows.

Returning to 1968, Ellroy introduces a gallery of characters whose deeds and misdeeds will determine the course of the novel. Two of them are familiar figures from "The Cold Six Thousand": Wayne Tedrow, a chemist and ex-policeman who engineered the murder of his own father, a prominent right-wing bigot; and Dwight Holly, a veteran FBI agent known as "Hoover's pet thug." Both of these men played key roles in the plot to murder Martin Luther King Jr. Both carry heavy burdens of guilt and responsibility, burdens they will never successfully escape. Joining them are Don Crutchfield, an ambitious young man with voyeuristic tendencies and a gift for persistence that will carry him into the novel's darkest corners, and a pair of extraordinary women with long-standing ties to left-wing political circles: Karen Sifakis and Joan Rosen Klein.

The shifting viewpoints of these characters, supplemented by such epistolary devices as tape transcripts, FBI memos and private journal entries, propel the narrative through four years of violently changing history, culminating in the 1972 Watergate break-in and the beginning of the end of the Nixon administration. The plot encompasses a wide range of locales and a host of tragedies both public and private.

In Los Angeles, the Machiavellian but increasingly demented Hoover launches a plan to discredit and destroy the black militant movement. In Washington, a profane, utterly corrupt Richard Nixon bluntly offers political favors in return for financial support. In the Dominican Republic, mob bosses work to extend their sphere of influence, using slave labor to build luxury casinos for wealthy tourists.

These sweeping events play out alongside a series of smaller, more localized incidents: the 1964 armored car heist, the discovery of a mutilated female corpse in a Los Angeles bungalow and the disappearance of a beautiful woman with ties both to organized crime and the world of the political left. In the end, the principle that Ellroy calls "confluence" reigns, as all of these elements come together to form a vast, intricate design that touches every major character in the novel.

"Blood's a Rover," like the volumes that precede it, is clearly not a conventional thriller. It is, rather, a rigorously constructed, idiosyncratic novel that uses the materials of crime fiction to examine the forces that have shaped -- and warped -- our recent history: racial tension, ideological warfare, greed, corruption and unbridled fanaticism in all its forms. Ellroy's bleak, brooding worldview, his dense, demanding style and his unflinching descriptions of extreme violence will almost certainly alienate large numbers of readers. But anyone who succumbs to the sheer tidal force of these novels will experience something darker, stranger and more compelling than almost anything else contemporary fiction has to offer.

Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub."

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