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.