Thursday, 21 May 2009

Stuart Neville Reviews Blood's a Rover by James Ellroy


James Ellroy finally brings us the conclusion to the American Underworld Trilogy, and his most personal novel since his 1987 breakout, THE BLACK DAHLIA. BLOOD'S A ROVER fulfils yet confounds every expectation.

The book takes its name from a line in the A.E. Housman poem, 'Reveille'. The imagery of the title implies the pervasive violence of Ellroy's world, but the wider theme of Housman's poem -- the brevity of life, and the imperative to live it well -- gives a better clue to the soul of the novel.

After a bloody prologue, the story-proper begins in 1968 by introducing Ellroy's triad of protagonists. Cop-turned-narco-chemist Wayne Tedrow Junior is back, older and more battle-hardened than when we last saw him in THE COLD SIX THOUSAND. FBI heavyweight Dwight Holly is promoted to centre stage as he works for and against a fading J. Edgar Hoover. New face Donald 'Crutch' Crutchfield, a young would-be private investigator, stumbles into the murk of Ellroy's American nightmare. We also have the all-star cast of historical figures that is a signature of the trilogy. There's Hoover in physical and mental decline, Howard Hughes at rock bottom, Richard Nixon on the ascendant, and any number of political and showbiz players of the time.

The plot is a classic Ellroy labyrinth: the Mob attempts to create a new Havana in the Dominican Republic; Hoover sets out to bring down the Black Power movement; a body in an abandoned house is connected to Haiti by a trail of hijacked emeralds. These seemingly disparate stories intertwine to form a dense, propulsive narrative that has one constant: Joan Klein, political agitator and object of obsession for all three protagonists.

So far, so Ellroy, you might think. Yes, all the Ellroy trademarks are present and accounted for. Dirty cops, dirtier politicians, brutal violence, booze, drugs, guns, it's all there. But what surprises the reader is that Ellroy takes everything we expect from him and turns it on its head. At first he comforts us with familiar structures and stylistic tics, then in one shocking revelation after another we realise nothing in this story can be taken on face value, not even the narrative itself. When he takes our expectations and uses them against us, it is the work of a master.

And here's the biggest revelation of all: forget everything you think you know about James Ellroy's politics. Those ugly facets of the macho persona he writes so well -- the racism, misogyny and homophobia -- might well have led you to believe Ellroy is so right-wing he makes George W. Bush look like a pinko. But if a novel can give an insight into a writer's true nature, then BLOOD'S A ROVER belies the author's carefully cultivated public image. Ellroy mercilessly examines the cost of fascism to society, and the terrible price the men who misuse power must pay for their crimes. That's not to say Ellroy has gone red on us; the far left is treated with equal disdain as his fictional ideologues prove to be as misguided and self-serving as their real-world counterparts. Taking in the overall arc of the trilogy, the true message becomes clear: those who abuse power to serve their own political and personal agendas will suffer for their sins, whether they lean to the left or the right.

The ferocious polemic of BLOOD'S A ROVER wouldn't have a fraction of its impact if not balanced by its surprising humanity. The character Don 'Crutch' Crutchfield is ostensibly based on a real-life private eye, but the depiction on the page is closer to Ellroy's own confessions of a misspent youth. Crutch is a voyeur who spies on women, tails them, and breaks into their homes. His private eye gig provides a means to scratch this itch. Ellroy has spoken openly about his early days and the unsavoury pastimes he indulged in. Crutch becomes an avatar for the author's younger self, revealing more of Ellroy than any fiction he's written since he confronted his own mother's brutal murder in THE BLACK DAHLIA.

The female characters in BLOOD'S A ROVER stand in contrast to those who populated his earlier works. They are more than objects of desire; they are not there simply to frustrate, entrap and betray the male protagonists. Their roles in the story carry more weight than we have ever seen from Ellroy in the past, particularly the Red Goddess Joan.

The meaning of Housman's poem, that man must not waste his life, begins to resonate as the protagonists strive for atonement against desperate odds. This emotional maturity gives BLOOD'S A ROVER a beating heart that arguably no other novel in James Ellroy's oeuvre has had before. And that heart is what makes it all so visceral, beautiful and horrific. BLOOD'S A ROVER is everything and nothing you wanted it to be, and the trilogy as a whole must be considered a landmark in American literature.

(M
any thanks to Stuart Neville [picture above, right] for the CSNI contribution -- gb)

18 comments:

adrian mckinty said...

i cant tell you how excited i am for this!!!!!!

Gerard Brennan said...

Adrian - As far as I can tell, Stuart's as much of an Ellroy fanboy as you are. You should have seen the smile on his face when he showed me his ARC at No Alibis a couple of weeks ago. Like a cat with two tails, or a dog with two...

gb

Josephine Damian said...

Great review - that's the second time I've seen Stu use the phrase "scratch the itch" in that context. (the first time was in THE TWELVE).

Regular readers of my blog know it refers to how writing blog posts satifies the urge to write, an urge that would be better served writing fiction.

Gerard, I've read enough NI fiction now to learn some of the colloquilaism like the dog with two....

Matt Craig said...

Count me in as another Ellroy fanboy who can't wait to read this! Nice review, Stuart. I'm off to re-read the first two books in preparation for September...

Keith Rawson said...

Awesome review!
Ellroy is the novelist who turned me onto crime fiction. It's going to be a long summer waiting on this one.

Gordon Harries said...

Keith,

I'm on the list for an ARC and possible interview with the Dog and the wait is killing me.

seanag said...

Wonderful review that really makes me want to read the book. Good news is that I actually snagged an
ARC. Bad news is that I haven't read the first two books in the trilogy. I wouldn't say it's wasted on me, but it's hardly fair, is it?

Gerard Brennan said...

I agree with you all, folks. It's a great review, and once again I'll say thanks to Stuart for the donation.

Josephine - I'm not surprised in the slightest. ;) Figured I'd be discreet, though.

Seana - All's fair in crime fiction and bookshop gains. Besides, I'm sure it can be enjoyed as a standalone. Dunno how you could resist trying it out after this review.

Cheers

gb

seanag said...

Gerard, thanks for the suggestion. Since I frequently read things out of order, and usually don't mind too much, I don't know why it didn't occur to me to read the one that I'm excited about first.

krimileser said...

Since 2005 or so the book had been announced again and again and now it will be finally available ? Unbelievable. Must be a reader's dream I'm dreaming. Perhaps if I keep sleeping, I might actually dream how I read the book.

(It is just a pity that publisher from UK only seldom send me ARC)

adrian mckinty said...

Seriously who do I have to kill to get a galley of this? I can promise a blog review and an Aussie newpaper review and maybe my firstborn.

Gerard Brennan said...

Bernd - Sorry to hear you don't get the ARC's you deserve, but at least you can get Blood's a Rover soon.

Adrian - Tap Seana for her copy.

gb

seanag said...

Yep--as I've said elsewhere, you can.

Gerard Brennan said...

It all worked out nicely, then.

gb

seanag said...

As l ong as nothing gets lost in the mail, yes.

Pete Wild said...

wouldn't recommend reading Blood's A-Rover before you've read American Tabloid & The Cold Six Thousand. They're a trilogy and they're pretty damn hardcore even if you read them consecutively. I'm not sure a standalone read of Blood's A-Rover will do you or the book any favours...

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Rob said...

A great review by Stuart who has confirmed what I have been saying for the past twenty five years, to anyone who has an interest in
great writers.

James Ellroy is a true master.

The third part of the "American Underworld" shows him at the top of his game. There is a very dry vein of humour in "Blood's A Rover" which has been missed by some critics, but in all he has shown that the bad guys may have won the battle, but eventually lost the war.

Utterly marvellous stuff.

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of meeting Mr Ellroy twice in 1990 and 1995 when he signed my copies of "The Big Nowhere" and "American Tabloid".

He was the perfect gentleman.

Long may the "Demon Dog" continue...