This book is the first in the “Underworld USA Trilogy”, which also includes “The Cold Six Thousand”, and “Blood’s a Rover”. They follow a precise chronology of crime and politics starting on 11/22/58 through 11/22/63 for “American Tabloid” and ending in May of 1972 at the conclusion of “Blood’s a Rover”. “American Tabloid” introduces three fictional protagonists; two FBI agents, and a private investor, former cop. Most of the narration is from the point of view of one of these characters as they interact with lesser fictional characters and a cast of actual historical figures. The story dovetails a fictional plot in between the pages of real history. A Shakespeare-like complex web of intrigue, corruption, and backstabbing coalesces between rival camps of organized crime, the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, the Kennedy’s, the CIA, Jimmy Hoffa, Howard Hughes, American and Cuban exile leftists and right extremists, and the Ku Klux Klan. Several real life mafia figures play a prominent role. Other actual people are mentioned or play minor roles in the periphery, such as: Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Marilyn Monroe, Eva Gardiner, Rock Hudson, Fidel and Raul Castro, and Fulgencio Batista. Much of the dramatic tension focuses on the rivalry between J. Edgar Hoover, John and Robert Kennedy, and the mafia, and between Joe Kennedy and Howard Hughes. Major conflicts also ensue between pro and anti-Castro Cubans and various American organizations, such as the CIA backing one side or the other. Most of the prominent characters including the three protagonists have complicated shifting allegiances. One of the main themes of the book involves the sameness in absence of morality, principles, and conscience, across the spectrum of characters. Murder, extortion, and other felonies seem to be the standard modus operandi for all with few exceptions. Enemies become allies, winners become losers, as money, power, and self-preservation are the only principles. Another theme is injustice as prejudice and sometimes violent hatred plays out against, African-Americans, Cubans, gays, leftists, Jews, and women.
A very unflattering picture of JFK, RFK, and Joe Kennedy unfolds. Joe Kennedy has extensive mob connections and a long history of illegal business deals. Robert Kennedy obsessed and self-righteous, and JFK is a shallow, immature, womanizer, who “sicced thugs on a foreign country and betrayed them when he saw how it looked.” The prologue summarizes the author’s intent :
“…Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.” …”It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.”
Stylistically, the book portrays a harsh realism with coarse profane language and graphically depicted extreme violence. Most of the book club members found the language and numerous gruesome murders to be over the top and unpleasant to read. I felt that the dialogue was true to life for the type of characters depicted, other members found it contrived. One member presented the idea of the author’s thesis being the possible mob and CIA conspiracy to assassinate JFK. Apparently several non-fictional books have come out to support that idea since “American Tabloid” was written. The narration sometimes inserts transcripts of wire tapped conversations, newspaper articles and other documents to supply information shared secretly among allied characters. There are 100 short chapters over 576 pages which become shorter as the pace quickens. The book seems to me to be reaching for a deeper purpose than just an entertaining crime thriller: a retelling of history, an expose of seaminess in American history, and a character study in the interchangeable nature of “good guys” and “bad guys.” I enjoyed it, although most of the others in the group did not.
James Ellroy has written primarily American crime fiction and has had about a dozen stories made into movies. Additionally, he has written documentaries and television shows. He has several interviews on YouTube in which he uses the same colorful, explicit language as he writes in his story dialogues. Here is a taste of it as he talks about his writing in general and his latest book (warning explicit language):