200th Post: Extended Review of BLOOD'S A ROVER by James Ellroy
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 10:00 PM
BLOOD'S A ROVER by James Ellroy: Extended Review by Stuart Neville
After eight long years, James Ellroy finally brings us the conclusion to the American Underworld Trilogy, and his most personal novel since his 1987 breakout, THE BLACK DAHLIA. BLOOD'S A ROVER fulfils yet confounds every expectation.
The novel takes its title from the A.E. Housman poem, 'Reveille'. The couplet in question reads: "Clay lies still, but blood's a rover; Breath's a ware that will not keep." The imagery of the title implies the scope of these 600-plus pages of conspiracy, violence and obsession that traverse all levels of political society, as well as the book's many geographical settings. But the wider theme of Housman's poem -- the brevity of life, and the imperative to live it well and fully -- perhaps gives a better clue to the soul of the novel.
Following a brief prologue that drops the reader into the middle of a bloody armoured car heist in 1964, the novel-proper begins its four-year journey in 1968 by introducing Ellroy's triad of protagonists. Cop-turned-narco-chemist Wayne Tedrow Junior is back, older and more battle-hardened than when we last saw him spattered with the blood of history in THE COLD SIX THOUSAND. FBI heavyweight Dwight Holly is promoted from supporting player to centre stage as he works for and against a fading J. Edgar Hoover and his nefarious schemes. And there's a new face: Donald 'Crutch' Crutchfield, a young would-be private investigator who stumbles, begs and blackmails his way into the murky waters of Ellroy's American nightmare. Of course, we also have the all-star cast of historical figures that is a signature of the American Underworld Trilogy. We have Hoover in physical and mental decline, Howard Hughes at rock bottom, Richard Nixon on the ascendant, and any number of political and showbiz players of the time. As with the previous entries in the trilogy that began with AMERICAN TABLOID, the historical figures are shown no pity as the author delights in dragging them through his mire.
The plot is a classic Ellroy labyrinth: the Mob attempts to create a new Havana in the Dominican Republic; Hoover and the FBI set out to bring down the Black Power movement; a dismembered body in an abandoned house is connected to bad voodoo in Haiti by a trail of hijacked emeralds. These seemingly disparate stories overlap and intertwine to form a dense, propulsive narrative that has one constant: a woman named Joan Klein, political agitator and object of obsession for all three protagonists.
So far, so Ellroy, you might think. Yes, all the Ellroy trademarks are present and accounted for. Three-headed point-of-view? Check. Document inserts to fill in the blanks? Check. Borderline oedipal fixations on women? Check. Dirty cops, dirtier politicians, brutal violence, booze, drugs, guns, snappy chapters, fragmented prose, startling imagery, it's all there. But what surprises the reader, what sneaks up and beats us around the head with a leather sap, is that Ellroy takes everything we expect from him and turns it on its head. He takes his time, allowing us the comfort of his familiar structures and stylistic tics, then in one shocking revelation after another we realise that nothing in this story can be taken on face value, not even the narrative itself. When the author takes our expectations and uses them against us, it is virtuoso stuff, the work of a master.
And here's the biggest revelation of all: prepare to forget everything you think you know about James Ellroy's politics. Those ugly facets of the macho persona he writes so well -- the racism, misogyny and homophobia -- might well have led you to believe Ellroy is so right-wing he makes George W. Bush look like a pinko. And that's apparently what he wants us to think; he wilfully plays up to that reputation, describing his own views on his Facebook page as "reactionary". But if a novel can give an insight into a writer's true nature, then BLOOD'S A ROVER belies that public image. In these pages, Ellroy mercilessly examines the cost of fascism to man and society. He shows us the broken lives left in the wake of government agencies acting outside their own laws to crush those who oppose them, and the terrible price the men who misuse power must pay for their crimes. That's not to say Ellroy has gone red on us; the far left is treated with equal disdain as his fictional ideologues ultimately prove to be as misguided and self-serving as their real-world counterparts. Taking in the overall arc of the trilogy, the true message becomes clear: those who abuse power to serve their own political and personal agendas at the cost of society will suffer for their sins, whether they lean to the left or the right.
James Ellroy's deconstruction of post-war American history is at its very core a political statement covering a total of around 1800 pages over three books. Many won't like what he has to say about the country's not-so-distant past, and by association its present and future. By forcing us to look again at events and personalities we thought we knew, even if it is in the guise of fiction, Ellroy also makes us look at the world we live in today with a questioning eye. The symbolism of the gemstones that reappear throughout the novel crystallises when a Haitian character explains: "Emeralds represent 'Green Fire' in voodoo text. They shine light on a dark history."
The ferocious polemic of BLOOD'S A ROVER would not have a fraction of its impact if it were not balanced by its surprising humanity. The character Don 'Crutch' Crutchfield is ostensibly based on a real-life private eye who still operates today, but the depiction on the page is closer to Ellroy's own confessions of a misspent youth. Crutch is a voyeur, a degenerate who spies on women, tails them, and breaks into their homes. His private eye gig provides a means to scratch this itch. Ellroy has spoken openly about his early days and the unsavoury pastimes he indulged in. Crutch becomes an avatar for the author's younger self, revealing more of Ellroy than any fiction he's written since he confronted his own mother's brutal murder in THE BLACK DAHLIA.
Wayne Tedrow Junior, a naïve sheriff's deputy when we first met him in Dallas at the time of Kennedy's assassination, has become a shell of a man, hollowed out by the horrors to which he has been privy. The metaphor of zombification as he is seduced by the voodoo lure of Haiti is apt. The chance of forgiveness from a woman who should hate him, but instead takes him as her lover, drives him to forsake everything he has stood for until now.
In the character of Dwight Holly, J. Edgar Hoover's pet thug, Ellroy explores most deeply the human cost of violence. At the core of Holly's journey is a love affair that is, uniquely in Ellroy's world, not based on obsession or expediency. It is a real honest-to-God relationship that offers hope of redemption, albeit tainted by the duplicity Ellroy seeks in all things.
The female characters in BLOOD'S A ROVER stand in contrast to those who populated his earlier works. They are more than objects of desire; they are not there simply to frustrate, entrap and betray the male protagonists, or serve as surrogates for whatever ghosts haunt the author. There are aspects we can recognise: some are older than the men who desire them, filling the oedipal role; one carries a scar, continuing the tendency for Ellroy's women to be physically or emotionally marked. But their characterisation and roles in the story carry more weight than we have ever seen from Ellroy in the past, particularly the Red Goddess Joan. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that shortly after completing BLOOD'S A ROVER, the author turned in a memoir called THE HILLIKER CURSE that deals with his relationships with the women in his life. One gets the impression Ellroy has worked out some inner turmoil that is reflected in these pages, and the novel is all the richer for it.
The meaning of Housman's poem, that man must not waste his life, begins to resonate as the protagonists strive for atonement against desperate odds. This emotional maturity gives BLOOD'S A ROVER a beating, bleeding heart that arguably no other novel in James Ellroy's oeuvre has had before. And that heart is what makes it all so visceral, beautiful and horrific. BLOOD'S A ROVER is everything and nothing you wanted it to be, and the trilogy as a whole must be considered a landmark in American literature. Simply staggering.
God Bless Jeff Abbott (and some other folks)
Tuesday, May 19, 2009, 6:39 PM
"An astonishing debut. Brilliantly conceived, masterfully written, Stuart Neville’s THE TWELVE is both a heart-pounding thriller and a stunning examination of responsibility and revenge. He is going to be a major new voice in suspense fiction."
I am, of course, thrilled. Many, many thanks to Jeff for his kind words.
I was further cheered today to receive a sampling of responses that Random House have received from the advance copies of THE TWELVE that were send out a while back. Here are a few snippets:
"What an amazing book! I genuinely felt this book pulling me back like a magnet every time I tried to put it down because I just HAD to know how it was going to pan out."
"The book was superb ... absolutely riveting from 1st page to last."
"A welcome relief from the usual psychopath type novels that have very little plot which seem to flood the market at the moment."
"The Twelve is an excellent example of a work of fiction revealing the truth behind a society in a way that another type of writing might be too fearful to try."
"An absolutely brilliant read it had me hooked from beginning to end"
"Utterly and frighteningly believable."
So, not a bad day, then. Check back soon for my special 200th post.
While I was rattling off quotes, it was very remiss of me to fail to link to this very lovely review by Josephine Damian. Many thanks, Josephine.
Review The Twelve for Prizes!
Sunday, May 10, 2009, 6:10 PM
To help promote THE TWELVE, I'll be offering a free downloadable short story collection from my website, cunningly titled THE SIX. In addition, a limited run of hard copies will be produced in a paperback format, all signed and numbered. Anyone who emails me about a review they've posted before midnight on 31st July 2009 will be entered into a draw to win one of five copies! So, get reviewing!
Although I'd really prefer readers to support their local independent bookstore,these online shops allow reviews:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/Twelve-Stuart-Neville/dp/1846552796/ (note: reviews aren't enabled on Amazon just yet, but should be at the time of publication)
Or you can post a review to any website or blog - just email me and you'll be entered.
And once again, it doesn't even have to be a good review!
Friday Night in Belfast: Good Times at No Alibis
Sunday, May 03, 2009, 3:30 PM
I met Nat and Judith at the Crown Liquor Saloon, opposite the Europa Hotel (Europe's most bombed hotel, fact fans) on Great Victoria Street. The Crown is a Belfast landmark and a must-see for anyone visiting the city, and after a quick drink there we strolled towards Botanic Avenue and No Alibis while we talked about the city and its recent history.
We were welcomed at No Alibis by its excellent proprietor, David Torrans, and the man himself, Colin Bateman. This was the first time Colin and I had met in person, and I'm happy to report he's a thoroughly nice chap, even if he has an irrational aversion to jazz. The reading was a resounding success with the shop filled to bursting. And who says humour doesn't travel? Nat and Judith, both native New Yorkers, just about bust a gut laughing with the rest of us at Colin's unique brand of Ulster comedy. Comedy is, of course, one of the hardest things to pull off in a novel, but Mr. Bateman showed us all how it was done, and his delivery in front of an audience is something to behold if you ever get the chance. Although Colin Bateman is easily Northern Ireland's most successful novelist, and he's a big name throughout Europe, his profile in the USA isn't high. With MYSTERY MAN being picked up by Richard & Judy for the summer season, I think that could be about to change; my American friends, keep your eye out for this book.
Another coincidence is that Mystery Man is in fact set in a crime bookshop on Botanic Avenue called No Alibis. David Torrans is absolutely insistent that the novel's narrator is not him. Regardless, I know David and his fantastic independent bookshop left a big impression on Nat and Judith, especially the great success he'd made of the reading. Nat was truly delighted to see not only an independent bookshop thriving in such turbulent times, but also the great support of the people of Belfast. He positively marveled at the turnout, and the queues of fans waiting for Mr. Bateman to sign their books. So well done to David Torrans and all at No Alibis - it takes some doing to wow a hardened publishing veteran like Nat Sobel, but you certainly did it. Roll on the 15th of May when American thriller scribe Michael Connelly comes to town, which will be another triumph for David.
After the event, Nat and Judith departed for their hotel. I stayed on at No Alibis to get a pint and a catch-up with the man behind Crime Scene NI, Gerard Brennan. To my delight it turned out that John Connolly also happened to be in the audience, so the evening wound up with John, Colin, Gerard, David and I heading out for dinner and drinks. Good food, good beer and good company; our conversation was polite and wholesome and involved absolutely no dirty jokes or swearing. Honest. *cough*
I'm just a couple of entries away from my 200th blog post and I'd like to make it a special occasion. As I've previously posted, I have in my possession an advance copy of James Ellroy's latest, BLOOD'S A ROVER. So for my 200th post, I'm going to write a special essay about the new book (over and above a straight review, which I hope to supply to the aforementioned Gerard Brennan when I've finished reading it). What I will say for now is that Blood's a Rover is a most surprising novel. I had wondered if it would be closer in style to AMERICAN TABLOID or THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, and on first impression it was the former. But as I sink deeper into Ellroy's intoxicating murk, I'm beginning to realise it's like neither. It marks a departure for Ellroy in many ways, but the greatest is its tenderness; don't worry, Ellroy hasn't gone soppy on us, but where I am now in the book, it's exhibiting something his previous works could be described as lacking: a human heart.
Oh, and here's little tidbit for Ellroy fans: after the upcoming memoir focusing on Ellroy's relationships with women (apparently turned in hot on the heels of BLOOD'S A ROVER), his next work of fiction will travel back in time to 1948 Los Angeles and feature a certain Irish cop who loomed large over THE BIG NOWHERE, LA CONFIDENTIAL and WHITE JAZZ...
A Good Week for Northern Ireland Crime Writers
Friday, May 01, 2009, 1:40 PM
Just across Belfast Lough from Carrickfergus stands the seaside town of Bangor, home to Northern Ireland's top dog of crime writers, Colin Bateman, or as he more often known these days, simply Bateman. His new novel MYSTERY MAN, which is out now, is interesting for many reasons, but primarily because it is set in a bookshop called No Alibis on Belfast's Botanic Avenue. What's interesting is there is a real life bookshop on Botanic Avenue called No Alibis, where the book will be launched this evening. But there was extra good news for Col-- sorry, Bateman -- today when Mystery Man was named as a pick for Richard and Judy's summer reading feature. For my US readers, getting a slot on Richard and Judy is the equivalent of appearing on Oprah. In other words, it's A Big Deal.