Saturday, November 21, 2009


I don't write many book reviews these days. I use to do quite a few during my newspaper years, but now I only dabble with the occasional freelance piece, usually for nonfiction works, such as the recent biography of actor Warren Oates. I shy away from reviewing fiction now, especially since I've had my own books published and reviewed. Part of that is karmic fear (what goes around comes around) and part is that I now realize how much work it is to actually write a book. As a result, I'm more reluctant to be critical of someone else's work (plus, the odds are greater now that I might actually bump into the author at some point).

However, while on the road the last two weeks, I read James Ellroy's new novel BLOOD'S A ROVER, the conclusion of his "Underworld U.SA." trilogy, and feel inclined to say a few things about it (coincidentally, one of my first reviews for The Star-Ledger was of Ellroy's memoir MY DARK PLACES).

First off: BLOOD'S A ROVER is long - that's looonnnnggg - topping out at 640 pages. THE COLD SIX THOUSAND, the previous book in the trilogy, published in 2001, was a little longer, but seemed to read tighter. Ellroy's writing style in BAR is probably more accessible than it was in CST - there are fewer three-and-four-word sentences filled with punchy alliteration ("The Deuce was dead. The dealers yawned. The barman yawned. Stray dogs meandered through. They beat the heat."). But Ellroy's headlong pace lags several times in BAR, and I sometimes felt myself stopping to take a breather before gathering the energy to read on.

It also feels slightly padded. Ellroy often halts the narrative to insert diary entries from his main characters. However, a lot of those entries seem to be written in the same voice, despite the fact they come from characters with varied backgrounds. At least three of them use variations on the phrase "I ride the zeitgeist" at one point or another. That is to say they speak like no one else in the world - except James Ellroy.

BAR is also a direct follow-up to CST, and if you're not familiar with the previous book, you may find yourself a little lost, even though Ellroy helpfully drops in several pages of backstory early on. BAR opens in the aftermath of the MLK/RFK assassinations, which were orchestrated by some of the major players in the trilogy, a few of whom are now seeking redemption. Others, like the French/Corsican mercenary Jean-Philippe Mesplede, who took out JFK with a shot from the grassy knoll, have moved on to other evil business, including illegal commando raids and scalping expeditions on Castro's Cuba. Rogue FBI agent Dwight "The Enforcer" Holley (a nickname recycled from Ellroy's 1992 novel WHITE JAZZ, whose main character was rogue L.A. cop Dave "The Enforcer" Klein) is regretting his career as a "right-wing thug," yet planning another assassination and setting up a likely fall guy to take the rap - and a bullet. Ex-Las Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow, son of a white supremacist hatemonger, is racked with guilt over his own role in the killing of MLK. And young "peeper" Don Crutchfield (a name Ellroy borrowed from a real L.A. private detective) is learning at the feet of them all. And like them, he's soon obsessed with the mysterious Joan Rosen Klein, the left-wing radical at the center of all the mysteries, who men kill and die for without ever really understanding.

Throw in Haitian voodoo, the mob, Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, Dominican Republic casinos, anti-Castro extremists, black revolutionaries, various psychedelic drugs and a 1964 armored car robbery that somehow sparks the whole plot and you have an idea of why it took took Ellroy 640 pages to get it all in, in a way that makes sense. Well, sort of makes sense.

Still, BAR is a James Ellroy novel, and there's only one writer in the world who can pull that off. For scope, complexity and breadth of ambition, no one else comes close. He doesn't always succeed in his efforts, but the arrogance and energy of them can be invigorating in itself. BAR would work better if it were tighter - 100 pages could have been easily chopped - but it's still unlike anything else out there.
Some other quick notes:

- The title comes from an A.E. Houseman verse ("Clay lies still/But blood's a rover"). That's also the long-announced title of Harlan Ellison's yet-to-be completed novel about the adventures of Vic and Blood, the post-apocalyptic duo from his award-winning novella "A Boy and His Dog."
- Dwight Holley is haunted by the death of George Diskant, a Nyack, N.Y., man whom Holley killed in a drunken driving accident. George Diskant is also the name of a celebrated cinematographer who shot some of greatest films noir of the 1940 and 50s, including THEY LIVE BY NIGHT, THE NARROW MARGIN, ON DANGEROUS GROUND and KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL.

- Ellroy isn't always so good with technical details. He repeatedly has his characters use "silencered" Magnum revolvers. Silencers/suppressors don't work on revolvers (what law-enforcement types call "wheel guns"), much less with high-powered Magnum rounds. Any noise abatement at the silenced muzzle is more than canceled out by the blowback through the open cylinder.

Still, like him or not, if you're attempting to write serious crime fiction these days, you have to read Ellroy. His slow output and occasional stumbles aside, the Demon Dog still leads the pack.

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