Sunday, September 20, 2009

Monday Review: James Ellroy's Blood's a Rover

This SATURDAY, James Ellroy will read at The Writer's Center. If you're planning on coming, remember that the reading starts at 7p.m. This is a pretty hot event, so you might want to consider registering early, right here. Seats are limited. Here's a special, extra-long Monday review/essay to get us properly juiced.

Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy
Alfred A. Knopf
Reviewed Ryan Sparks

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 mother 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.

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.

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. His rhythm-based work appears frequently on the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal,

For more Ellroy information, check out this interview with Ellroy by member Art Taylor (who interviewed Ellroy for the fall Carousel). Or check out the Washington Post's review here.


j. morris said...

I admire how cleverly you manage to avoid saying whether the novel is in fact any good.



Santa Fe Writers Project said...

I struggled with it myself. The weakest of the trilogy, in my opinion... But still amazingly crafted. Ellroy can write, but we don't quite have the same vibe as the first two. A longer version of Ryan's review will be hitting on October 1st.