Wednesday, June 03, 2009

book review - American Tabloid - James Ellroy

This is a real doorstopper of a book running around the 600 page mark and it's content is almost just as heavy as James Ellroy charts the backdrop leading up to the assassination of JFK.

Using a trio of characters that are connected to some of the major figures of the early 1960s Ellroy weaves in between good and evil highlighting, if the point needed making, that there are no saints in a world of politics, mafia, drugs and power.

So you get Pete Bondurant the ex-cop turned hired gun who works for Howard Hughes teaming up with Kemper Boyd the FBI man working for Hoover while playing the Kennedys' who are desperate to be elected. Thrown into the mix is Ward Littell an FBI man who starts as a friend of Kemper and an enemy of Pete but shows that under the influence of money and the desire for self preservation he can trade friendships for personal gain without too much trouble.

But the star attraction in this story is the history of the period. Kemper and Pete are brought together through the opportunity to make some money from both criminals and government bodies who want Castro out of Cuba. The problem is that the muddled Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 leaves them and their backers with failure. The other major strand is the battle against Robert Kennedy and the mob and in particular Jimmy Hoffa. The Teamster union boss is seen to have been abusing the union funds and throughout the book Robert Kennedy is trying to prove that through the work of law abiding citizens like Ward Littell.

On top of those duel strands are a host of characters that underline just how exciting and crazy this was in terms of being around and a player in the US in the early 1960s. Frank Sinatra mixes with mafia bosses. Howard Hughes starts to go mad as he moves to Vegas and the Kennedy machine wins the presidency and then fails to patch over the conflict between the corruption that got them there and the desire to be seen as changing the system.

The bullets that were fired in Dallas are the culmination of a political poker game that is being played for the highest stakes. Castro might be shouting out about communism but for those that have seen their casions and income from Cuba cut this is about power and control. For the Kennedy's Ellroy has an uneasy difference between the brothers with Jack the realist and his brother Bobby the firebrand on a mission. The failure of either to correct the inadequacies of the other also forced disaster.

But as the story of Kemper the once star of the Kennedy entourage and then failed Cuban exiled leader and drug runner shows all too clearly the winds of change were blowing so strongly during the late 1950s and early 1960s that the chance to master them was beyond even the most capable of political players.

On to book two of the Underworld USA series...


Rob said...

Ellroy is one that I always mean to get around to... but never quite do. As it is, I've only managed to watch the film of L.A. Confidential (which is admittedly great). Would this be a good place to start, do you think?

Simon Quicke said...

Not sure if this is a good place to start. I found it sometimes slow and it involved some commitment to stick with.

Sorry btw for slow reply but not used to getting comments!