Ugly America


This is how Don DeLillo’s epic Underworld opens: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”

And this is the way The Cold Six Thousand, the second volume of what James Ellroy has called his “underworld U.S.A.” series begins: “They sent him to Dallas to kill a nigger pimp named Wendell Durfee.”

Note the contrast.

James Ellroy has fashioned himself into the anti-DeLillo of American lit. Disarmingly shameless and mediagenic, he is the ambitious, hard-boiled materialist to DeLillo’s elegizing modernist. Where DeLillo interrogates and celebrates the country eclectic behind handsome prose, eschewing literary showbiz, Ellroy bangs out ironic tough-guy shtick in teletype rhythms, then takes it on the road. While DeLillo was meditating on Dylan in the ’70s, Ellroy was a boozing, pill-popping caddy still mourning his mother’s 1958 murder, an event whose dark juju has illuminated each of his books to various degrees and sometimes quite specifically, as in Clandestine and The Black Dahlia.

The Cold Six Thousand covers much the same ground as Underworld, and it is a great and terrible book about a great and terrible time in American history. More readable than 1995’s American Tabloid, which related the events leading up to John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, it begins that day in Dallas and concludes several hundred angry and blood-drenched pages later with presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s murder on June 9, 1968. Ellroy imagines a historically viable conspiracy scenario in which everything from the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cold War to Vietnam and the civil rights movement revolves around Las Vegas and the interests of the mob. Passages such as this, in which mob boss Sam Giancana riffs on current events from his jail cell, could be a fictional gloss on Sally Denton and Roger Morris’s recently published The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America, hyperventilating prose and all:

Sam straddled his chair. “We got hurt on the ’60 election. I bought Jack West Virginia and Illinois, and he sicced his cocksucking kid brother on us. Now, Johnson’s okay, but he’s soft on the niggers, and he might not run in ’68. The thing is, we’re prepared to be very generous to the right candidate, if he pardons Jimmy [Hoffa], and helps us out on some other fronts.”

Absent the irritating faux tabloid reportage that made Tabloid a trial to plow through, The Cold Six Thousand consists of endless variations of this random graf: “He set the brake. He pulled Leroy up. He ripped up the tape. He ripped off skin and half his mustache.” Shit happens in three- and four-word spurts on Ellroy’s pages like endless Ramones verses strung together—a punk-rock read lacking the soul of wit. At his most tedious, Ellroy’s a long-winded version of Mickey Spillane, with cynical politics dressing toward the right. At his best he epitomizes the tell-it-like-it-is verve of journalists such as Jimmy Breslin or Molly Ivins.

There are no good guys and bad guys in Ellroy’s universe, only bad guys and worse guys. The novel’s antiheroes—Wayne Tedrow Jr., Pete Bondurant, and Ward Littell are but the latest in a long, long line of essentially interchangeable Ellroyan authority figures with feet of clay—operate in a phantom zone where business, government, and criminal interests coincide. Proceeds from the trio’s Vietnam heroin-manufacturing operation subsidize the importation of arms to anti-Castro rebels, for example. Littell also works for J. Edgar Hoover to destabilize the civil rights movement, but skims money off of Howard Hughes’s Vegas operations and sends it to the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition to assuage his guilt.

All three men are double, sometimes triple, agents who alternate between adrenaline-surging fits of violence (” ‘How many scalps did he take?’ ‘Four.’ ‘Do you think he enjoyed it?’ Pete smiled. ‘With Wayne you never know’ “) and moping moments of self-loathing in the arms of fallen women—black dahlias all, to different extents. And talk about your male gaze—it’s a daisy chain in here, with Tedrow lusting after his stepmother, who eventually gets it on with Littell, who has the hots for Bondurant’s wife, and so on (not to mention a questionable subplot involving Hoover’s obsession with Martin Luther King’s sex life as documented on a stag loop most of the book’s male characters eventually eyeball). Sex is nearly as icky for Ellroy as it was for Spillane, with violence providing the orgasmic payoff in both their worlds.

Ellroy’s novels have become increasingly convoluted over the years, as though any fabric of atrocities that can’t be unfolded in 700 pages isn’t worth telling. DeLillo’s Underworld and Libra suggest the last five decades of American history aren’t as awful as they might appear because art mitigates evil. Ellroy harbors no such delusions (DeLillo writes to understand, Ellroy to vent spleen), and if history doesn’t provide a worst-case scenario, he’ll create one. Many of his effects are forced, however. When Bondurant blackmails actor Sal Mineo into setting up a gay SCLC official, it’s as though a TV character had squeezed out of the screen and appeared on the street.

Where Ellroy excels, though, is in the sheer stamina and Mailerlike nerve of his hypermasculine vision. Tedrow’s oedipal anger with his father, who sent him on the pimp-killing job that ends up costing Junior’s wife her life, mirrors Bondurant’s fury when he learns that the guns the Vietnam heroin operation are supposedly buying aren’t going to Cuba at all, which in turn mirrors the mob’s revenge when the elder Kennedy brother doesn’t call off the younger after winning an election they helped fix. It’s impossible to imagine any other novelist generating so many pages focusing on so many levels of anger and betrayal. And Ellroy promises at least one more installment in this epic dystopic version of the American half-century. How will it end? Here’s a hint:

Underworld concludes with a single word: “Peace.”

And The Cold Six Thousand? “His father screamed. Blood sprayed the panes.”