Blood's a Rover
Alfred A. Knopf: 648 pp., $28.95
Here's the new James Ellroy. You pretty much know what you're going to get. Bucketloads of conspiracy theory and 600-plus pages of stripped-down prose strafing you like a machine gun. The book is long, as usual, the sentences short, as ever: "He was a sergeant on the Vegas PD. He was married. He had a chemistry degree. His father was a big Mormon fat cat. Wayne Senior was jungled up all over the nut Right. He did Klan ops for Mr. Hoover and Dwight Holly. He pushed high-line hate tracts. He rode the far-right zeitgeist and stayed in the know. He knew about the JFK hit."
The character under discussion here is Wayne Tedrow Jr., and, as "Blood's a Rover" begins, he's no longer a cop but a killer and a heroin runner, and he's just assassinated his father -- his accomplice is his stepmother, who is also his lover. They used a golf club to do the job. With Ellroy, Oedipus churns with Dashiell Hammett in the pulp blender.
"Blood's a Rover" was more than eight years in the writing and follows "American Tabloid" and "The Cold Six Thousand" to conclude what is considered Ellroy's "Underworld USA" trilogy, a retelling of recent American history from a frenzied gumshoe's point of view. Here the action picks up in the aftermath of the slayings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., moves through the riots that attended the 1968 political conventions in Chicago and Miami, and sweeps into the social-unrest götterdämmerung of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Richard Nixon is assuming the presidency. The Mob wants to create a new Havana in the Dominican Republic. Members of the underground commit murder and switch identities to survive. Besides Wayne Tedrow Jr. (a holdover from "The Cold Six Thousand"), two other male characters carry the narrative: Don Crutchfield, a low-level Los Angeles wheelman waiting "for work from skank private eyes and divorce lawyers," and Dwight Holly, a Klan-raised, Yale-educated FBI agent with a lover who has connections to the underground. To jump-start the interwoven story lines, Wayne wants a job with Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, Dwight is looking for an informant to infiltrate "The Black Tribe Alliance and The Mau Mau Liberation Front" and Crutch gets on the trail of Gretchen Farr/Celia Reyes, a luscious bad babe who will lead him toward the knife-scarred Joan Klein, an unsmiling femme fatale who might be "a red diaper peacenik or an armed-robber manque" and who holds the key to many of the book's mysteries. Joan, like other Ellroy women, is gutsy and more than a match for the typically libido-lashed Ellroy male.
The plotting, though easier to follow than in "The Cold Six Thousand," is still pretty fiendish and intricate. "Scripture-pure veracity and scandal-rag content," says the narrator -- in this case it's Crutchfield, the panty-stealing peeper who somehow survives to piece together the tale. He's Ellroy's witness, typically sleazy and demanding. "You will read with some reluctance and capitulate in the end. The following pages will force you to succumb. I am going to tell you everything."
"Everything" involves the usual Ellroy catalog of rogue cops, shakedown artists, faked-up FBI reports and real-life political figures seen in mental and physical undress. Yet, for all its involutions, "Blood's a Rover" has a simple motor. History is what happens in rooms and on the phone and behind the trigger of a gun, Ellroy tells us. Power creates abuse, and men of power, like Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover and Hughes, have contact at some level with the stooges who do their bidding. Ellroy, knowing Shakespeare, loves his secondary murderers as much and more than the kings in their castles and especially enjoys the contact between the two. Here's Hoover in conversation with Dwight Holly, who's seeking money to cover up Wayne's killing of two African Americans:
" 'Does he watch the 'Soul Train' TV show for upbeat entertainment and to expiate his guilt?' Hoover asks.
" 'I would guess that he brews up narcotic compounds for the purposes of sedation and sleep,' Holly replies."
The arcane dialogue provides humor, while Ellroy's descriptions of violence remain powerful and slo-mo vivid. "Bullet shards became shrapnel pellets. They burst wide and tore out Hazzard's throat. He gasped and pitched off the car seat. Wayne aimed up and squeezed slow. The shot hit Pappy mid-face. He fell backward. His head hit a whirring fan and sent red up and out."
"Blood's a Rover" is unlikely to win new converts to this great American control freak. Those who dig the lingo and jive will line up for the ride. The characterization is thin, the conspiracy jigsaw perhaps a little too familiar by now. (Oliver Stone would have loved to turn this into a movie, could he still command the budget.) Yet, for all its glee in offending liberal pieties, Ellroy's latest recharting of American history and the American psyche veers toward sympathy for the 1960s underground and the tenets of secret, organized revolt. The portrait of the superwoman "Red Goddess Joan" becomes, first, compelling, then almost sappy as she too, like the voyeur Crutchfield, seeks atonement.
The book's title comes from one of A.E. Housman's rueful verse laments to life's brevity and fragility. It sort of figures -- regret and loss are themes here, to some extent belying Ellroy's demon dog persona, which nonetheless barks loudly throughout: "Crutch swiveled the telescope west. He caught Barb Cathcart grilling hot dogs. She wore a tie-dyed top and a peace medallion. Her freckly cleavage showed. Barb sang with a group called The Loveseekers. They lost every Battle of the Bands that they played. Barb . . . flashed him at Le Conte Junior High, spring '58. His world de-centralized then. Barb's brother Bobby was a call boy. He allegedly possessed one particularly long body part. (You get the idea, right?)
"Blood's a Rover" concludes an epic fictional project that has been wild and brilliant, dazzling and funny, and even, let's admit it, repetitive and hectoring. Where will Ellroy go from here? Many will wish him to return to the period noir he more or less invented with "L.A. Confidential" and the rest of his "L.A. Quartet."
Don't count on it, nor on him writing a bromance either -- although his is a career that has continued to develop in surprising ways.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place" and writes the Paperback Writers column, which appears monthly at latimes.com/books.