Ryan Sparks tackles Ellroy’s latest, Blood’s A Rover
A shorter version of this review originally appeared on the Writer’s Center blog, First Person Plural.
It’s not the size of the head of a sledgehammer that gives it its weight and danger; it’s the mass. All those individual molecules forged together tight and inseparable and heavy. The same goes for James Ellroy’s sentences. And Blood’s a Rover, his latest novel and the final volume of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, is a heavy motherfucker full of those tiny, elemental sentences. And after writing a couple million of them over his career, he’s more than mastered the effect. In Blood’s a Rover, as in his other recent books, it’s almost a necessity to move the action along so fast, to pronounce so much detail with so few syllables: Ellroy’s scope is massive. The novel careens through four of the most volatile years in American history, 1968-1972: the end of the birth pangs of revolt and protest, the last gasp for automatic respect for authority, the first test drive of the new American Identity. Those sentences need to hustle.
As usual Ellroy employs his three-man structure, using three characters with alternating chapters to cover all that ground, not only sharing the same space with history but also helping push it along. Wayne Tedrow, Jr., an ex-Vegas cop and fixer for the Mob continues his mad rise through the ranks of the underworld from The Cold Six Thousand. FBI agent Dwight C. Holly is pulled from the supporting cast of that book and makes a great turn as a main protagonist. Donald Crutchfield, an almost too thinly veiled alter ego for Ellroy himself, is a young wheelman working odd jobs for a private detective firm with strong vices: window-peeping and an OCD desire to know. These are the troubled men over whose shoulder we are invited to see the working world of the fictionalized heavyweights of our recent past—Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, Sam Giancana, Howard Hughes—as always, written up in caricature. It must amuse Ellroy to have the real men play comic relief to the sordid and emotional lives of his characters.
Beyond the personalities there are the Times. Black power groups pulling their stunts in Los Angeles. Professional revolutionaries scheming behind aliases. CIA running interference in Central America and Hispaniola. American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand both had assassination plots as their centerpieces: JFK in the first, his brother and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the second. Without the bulk of such big, bad misdeeds to focus on, Ellroy is free to explore the times and the men in more detail in Blood’s a Rover than in the first two books. So running hot beneath the nationwide chaos there are two unsolved crimes in L.A.—a heinous murder and a bad-ass armored car robbery—that overshadow the personal lives of almost everyone involved in the story. These mysteries, almost a throwback to the days when Ellroy wrote about sex killers and crooked cops instead of connected hitmen and government-sanctioned saboteurs, take up the slack in the absence of major historical events.
Ellroy long ago proved that he had the balls to recast the noir novel as something beefier, sexier, and headier than anyone thought possible, and now, with the completion of this trilogy, he’s brought that same fearlessness to historical fiction. The language is racist and racy, which always seemed to fit his fifties-era gumshoe novels, but seems to be toeing the line in a book that is preoccupied with the black uprising in America and black subjugation in Haiti. Almost every racial epithet for blacks and Hispanics makes a cameo somewhere in the book, and almost always from the narrator, not just a character using the ubiquitous parlance of the times. But for Ellroy, being sensitive to overt racism is our problem, not his. Neither is his firm denial to assign Right and Wrong labels on the characters he takes seriously, whether they’re Communists, exiles, right-wing toadies, or perverts. His take on historical fiction isn’t—like so many others who make their living at it—to conceive a likeable hero and buff him with a modern polish who tut-tuts through period pieces and affirms our contemporary separation from outdated prejudices. Ellroy knows that today is not so different from yesterday, that White Fear is running as hot as it ever was and we just play it closer to the vest. Ellroy knows political ideologies are paper masks for our irrational emotions. Ellroy knows that history would prefer to be uncategorized and unbridled, so he tells it like it was.
Ellroy brings in two minor characters to chronicle their own difficulties in jiving their personal desires with what is expected of them from the groups they serve. Marshall Bowen, a black police officer recruited by Dwight Holly and the FBI to infiltrate and discredit a Black Panther-like group, takes turns working for and against The Man as well as running toward and diverging from black stereotypes. Karen Sifakis, a hard-left activist without the guts for human collateral damage struggles magnificently as Dwight Holly’s mistress. Karen and Dwight take turns leading a tango of political subversion and diversion. Ellroy recreates these two characters’ journals, giving us further license to peep and pry into the conflicted psyches of the era’s population. Their diary entries are always a great breather from the mainline bop of the rest of the book, and provide an alternative to the willful motives of all the hard white men who have otherwise dominated the entire trilogy.
We know their motives up front—Ellroy rarely has time to slow down and let their subconscious bubble. So we watch the white men try and bend the world with either force or money and we watch those underneath their heels either give in out of greed or die horribly for standing firm. But up until now, Ellroy has never provided us with a real open look at the Other Side, and it seems that this book is almost his apology for that. Beyond Bowen and Sifakis, Joan Klein, an uber-revolutionary with friends in high places rumbles through the book’s fault lines and shakes the lives of all three men. Each man has to reconcile with her in some way, and Joan is as hard-nosed and violent as they are in her pursuit to defy oppression and dilute the power of men like Hoover, Nixon, and lesser-known spooks.
Ellroy is an old man now, and he is wiser and craftier than ever. Blood’s a Rover, like each of his last six novels, contains its own lifelike maze, something that tunnels dark and dirty, overwrought with dead ends and tough choices. Ellroy invites you to mourn the ones that die in search of an exit and reminds you that the survivors are not always the lucky ones. And while it sometimes seems that the mad arena of convergence and complexity is what occupies Ellroy, what he’s boastful of, the true follower of his logic knows that that’s not the case. What Ellroy revels in are the moments when two of his characters meet at the corners sprinting from separate chambers and the deception, the horror, or the confessions they share. The Old Man knows greed and lust, but he prefers heartache and sacrifice. The Old Man seduces us with pulp but then keeps us in bed until morning with the substance. We don’t read Ellroy for the chase or the blood or the shock. Any lech with a typewriter can give you that. We read him because he’s the only one doing what he does. And now that he’s finished with the flash and trash of the sixties, it’s only a matter of time before he sets his sights on some other sinister age and winds up with that sledgehammer for another swing at greatness.
Ryan Sparks is an American writer working out of New Orleans.