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American Tabloid ~ A Capsule Book Review

American Tabloid cover

American Tabloid ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp 

I once met James Ellroy at one of his book-signing events. He is outspoken and some might say outrageous. He greets the audience with something like: “Hey, all you pimps, whores, scumbags, screwheads, weirdos, daddy-o’s, etc…” He isn’t afraid to be what he is and makes no apologies. He is the self-described “white knight of the far right.” I like his style. If you dare to challenge him on political matters, he will cut you off at the knees. (I love seeing that.) Another point that he gets across is that if you want political correctness, you won’t get it from him, so go someplace else. He wrote an interesting inscription in my copy of his novel The Cold Six Thousand concerning the writer Frank McCourt, who wrote Angela’s Ashes. I hope that one day my copy of that book is worth—oh, I don’t know—about six thousand dollars, but I don’t think I would sell it even for that much.

If you’ve ever read any of James Ellroy’s books, you know that he’s probably the only person who writes the way he does. If there are any others, I’m sure they’re imitators. He writes about a shadowy world of crime, of bad people doing bad things, in an age when the world was different. His sentences are short and punchy. You will never have to go back and try to unravel one of his compound-complex sentences to figure out what he’s saying, because he doesn’t write them. Of the books I’ve read by him, my favorite is his only nonfiction book, My Dark Places, which is an account of his mother’s murder in 1958, when he was ten years old, and his lifelong obsession with finding her killer. (He never does.)

His novel American Tabloid is a massive (575 pages) saga of corruption, malfeasance, wiretapping, eccentricity bordering on insanity, union criminality, dirty politics, Mob violence, hypocrisy, ego, hatred and vengeance. It is set in the tumultuous period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when Castro took control of Cuba and America found a communist dictatorship on its doorstep. It was also the first time that America elected a president based on the way he looks and speaks rather than on his ability to lead.

The action of the book is driven by three main fictional characters—Kemper Boyd, Pete Bondurant, and Ward Littell—who are all involved in some capacity with the CIA, FBI, or Justice Department; their association with these organizations doesn’t mean they are ethical or fair, law-abiding or honest. They also have Mob connections and are involved in clandestine efforts to remove Castro from power.

The three fictional characters (Boyd, Bondurant, and Littell) interact throughout the novel with the real-life characters, including J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Jacob Rubinstein (“Jack Ruby”), etc. None of them are presented in a flattering light. John Kennedy (“Jack the Haircut”) is portrayed as a sexually voracious, pretty-boy airhead who will choose political expediency over genuine leadership when the “Bay of Pigs” invasion doesn’t go well. His brother, Robert, is a priggish opportunist, a truly unlikeable man. The novel ends with the Kennedy assassination, which is a Mob hit with a patsy “fall guy.” The Mob despised Kennedy (according to the fictional premise of this novel) because he wouldn’t take decisive action to remove Castro from Cuba, depriving the Mob of its Cuban casino profits.

American Tabloid has so many characters and situations that it’s kind of hard at first to keep them all straight, but the pieces come together in the end. It’s a fast-paced, though long, reading experience; always interesting; at times fascinating; not to be taken too seriously or taken for truth. Read and enjoy.

Copyright © 2013 by Allen Kopp

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