Saturday, 13 August 2011

Blood's a Rover

Blood's a Rover - James Ellroy

"Scripture-pure veracity and scandal-rag content."

This is a study of, and exercise in, obsessions, compulsions and persistence. Sometimes it's hard to separate Ellroy's persona and history from his characters. Certainly Donald Crutchfield, the character who ties this book together shares peccadilloes with the author. He is a 'peeper' who has stolen women's lingerie. He has a missing mother who he searches for. He is also the narrator, him and his paper trail.
(Ellroy's mother was killed when he was a child and he did time for peeping/stealing women's lingerie.)
The book opens with a brutal heist, in the description of which are scattered a few very biblical imprecations to "Mark it now". This is the King James version of history, delivered in a declamatory style all Ellroy's own. Short "staccato™" sentences that borrow from police reports and gossip columns constantly invite you to join the dots and create a labyrinthine plot that takes in everything from the long decline of J Edgar Hoover to the mystical power of emeralds in Haitian voodoo (traveling from one to the other on (Howard) Hughes Air in the company of law ENFORCERS and lawbreakers a plenty).  They also take in the assassinations of the Kennedy's and King. Indeed all Ellroy's work can be seen to revolve about the murder of his mother and the murder of the American Dream in the guise of the Kennedys and King.
Everyone is compromised in this world, and whether working for the 'law'; or against it; or for greed; or ideals - all are in need of redemption. The main characters are Wayne Tedrow, Dwight 'the Enforcer' Holly, Donald Crutchfield, Joan Klein and Nancy Sifakis. Their stories have many similarities and allow Ellroy to reflect one story off the other. Most have issues with how their parents treated them or how the state (Hoover) treated their parents. This splits on gender lines with both Holly and Tedrow doing work for Hoover and Klein and Sifakis having parents and/or friends victimised by J Edgar for their RED sympathies.
The portrait of "Gay Edgar" is like Lenny Bruce doing a late night show for some mobsters while high, with each visitation becoming ever more groteque but also uncomfortably funny.
"JEH: Jack Leahy is a duplicitous agent with a seditious sense of humor reminiscent of the late heroin addict/comedian, Lenny Bruce. I track cocktail party chitchat, you know. When I went for my gall bladder operation, Jack Leahy told a Chicago agent I was having a hysterectomy."
"Mr Hoover dug the peace sign. It was the 'footprint of the American chicken.'"
Files on misdemeanors and the threat of force means that anyone who becomes part of the world of this novel is unlikely to escape. "You don't get out of The Life unmaimed or alive." The very fact that people are severely compromised makes them attractive to those who want to 'operate' them. It's leverage, even if it's also a potentially explosive weakness. Many of the characters are looking for a mixture of redemption and retribution. The worse their personal history, the greater their need for redemption.
Although not explicitly stating who is good, or if anyone is good; the women in the book have RED sympathies and seem to have more generous ideals. They are also looking to use the desire to do good, to find redemption. "She implied that you were ready. She quoted Goethe at one point. The phrase she used was 'the fall upward.'"
Race plays a big part in this novel with one of the operations trying to discredit the black political movement by assosciating it closely with criminality and therefore burying legitimate grievances (sounds like what's happening in England right now). This involves infiltrating the movement and here both operator (Dwight Holly) and infiltrator (Marshall Bowen) find themselves tapping into the legitimacy of the cause they are trying to undermine in order to enhance the credibility of their operation. Here's Bowen, having used a script prepared for him by Holly: "In retrospect, it felt like demagoguery, social analysis and apostalic fervour all rolled into one. And the amazing thing to me - that Mr. Holly would not find amazing at all-is that I don't know whether or not I believe a word of it."
As in previous books the narrative voice reflects the worldview of the characters and is far, far from any consideration of PC. At times it veers into the speech patterns often assosciated with schizophrenia, with forced alliteration (Krazy Klan Klowns) and forced puns (Air COONditioning). The sheer intensity of this attempt to force meanings into the most banal sentences pushes the reader into an insomnmaniacal™ condition. Indeed, I felt a strong desire to sit up with gallons of industrial strenght coffe and try to read the whole book in one sitting, reflecting the manic drug fueled file reading sessions of some of the novels characters.
The novel (maybe surprisingly) also deals with the future and parenthood plays a big role in the book. Dwight Holly shows his soft side through his love for the children of his lover and RED informant Karen Sifakis. She wonders what the result of her liason will be.  "Dwight will be buying her odd stuffed animals soon, like the alligators he bought Dina, and she will grow up thinking that predators (like Dwight!) are soft and cuddly."
It also becomes surprisingly mystical, moving to Haiti where characters have  "nightmares in Voodoo VistaVision." This allows Papa Doc to join in the parade of the grotesque. Humour, however, is never too far away and the parricide which was central to The Cold Six Thousand is reflected in a call for parrotcide:
"'Donald, your hand is bleeding.'
'A parrot bit me.'
'Was it red?'
'Then you should have killed it.'"
These are just snapstick slapshots of the book. I want to keep typing and finding more quotes and giving away more of the plot and character. All I really want to say is that Ellroy is unique and compulsive. He writes in an idiom which is all his own. This book reminded me of my excitement when I first discovered Ellroy and couldn't stop reading him until I'd come to the end of his work at the time. I look forward to future re-reads of his books, as well as new ones.
You - you want to know more? Read first, ask questions later.

1 comment:

  1. Roald Dahl "Boy". Keep it simple. Great little read!