Jay Gatsby, you poor doomed bastard. You were ahead of your time. If you would have pulled your scam after the invention of reality TV, you would haveJay Gatsby, you poor doomed bastard. You were ahead of your time. If you would have pulled your scam after the invention of reality TV, you would have been a huge star on a show like The Bachelor and a dozen shameless Daisy-types would have thrown themselves at you.
Mass media and modern fame would have embraced the way you tried to push your way into a social circle you didn’t belong to in an effort to fulfill a fool’s dream as your entire existence became a lie and you desperately sought to rewrite history to an ending you wanted. You had a talent for it, Jay, but a modern PR expert would have made you bigger than Kate Gosselin. Your knack for self-promotion and over the top displays of wealth to try and buy respectability would have fit right in these days. I can just about see you on a red carpet with Paris Hilton.
And the ending would have been different. No aftermath for rich folks these days. Lawyers and pay-off money would have quietly settled the matter. No harm, no foul. But then you’d have realized how worthless Daisy really was at some point. I’m sure you couldn’t have dealt with that. So maybe it is better that your story happened in the Jazz Age where you could keep your illusions intact to the bitter end.
The greatest American novel? I don’t know if there is such an animal. But I think you'd have to include this one in the conversation....more
I needed a quick read because I stupidly forgot that the library would be closed yesterday for Veteran's Day. I'd exhausted my current supply, and I nI needed a quick read because I stupidly forgot that the library would be closed yesterday for Veteran's Day. I'd exhausted my current supply, and I needed a short term fix to hold me until I could get some new product today. So I grabbed Of Mice and Men off the bookshelf last night.
And I'm glad I did because I'd somehow remembered that this was a depressing book. How wrong I was! Oh, sure there were some tense moments like when you think Lennie will accidently hurt Curley's wife in the barn. What a relief when George and Candy come in at the last minute and stop anything bad from happening! And isn't it nice that the scare changes both Curley and his wife so that they have a much better marriage and new appreciation for each other.
Plus, it leads to the great moment when Curley is so grateful that he fronts George, Lennie and Candy the money to finally buy the ranch of their dreams. Oh, and that last scene with George and Candy on the porch of their new home while Lennie tends the rabbits brought a tear to my eye.
What's that you say? I got the ending wrong? No, I'm quite certain this is what happened. No! Be quiet! I can't hear you! LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA
I’m a fan of Michael Chabon even though he carries a man purse.
Joe Kavalier is a young artist who had also trained to be a magician and escape artistI’m a fan of Michael Chabon even though he carries a man purse.
Joe Kavalier is a young artist who had also trained to be a magician and escape artist in Prague. When the Nazis invade in 1939, Joe is able to escape to America with the plan that he’ll find a way to get the rest of his family out. In New York, he meets his cousin Sam Clay. Sam is an artist of limited talent who has been doing drawings for the ads of a novelty toy company, but the recent boom of superhero comics thanks to the newly created Superman has inspired him to try and break into that budding industry.
When Sam sees Joe’s artistic talent, they form a partnership and Sam talks the owner of the novelty company into launching a comic line featuring masked men. Joe and Sam create a group of comic characters including The Escapist, a magician and escape artist who is also endowed with super strength by an ancient secret society to help free the oppressed. Sam’s story telling instincts and Joe’s art quickly make The Escapist one of the most popular comics on the market.
However, Joe’s inability to get his family out of Europe due to anti-Semitic German bureaucracy and US government red tape continually leaves him frustrated and angry. Falling in love only makes him feel guiltier for his happiness and success. Meanwhile, Sam buries himself in work to avoid admitting that he’s a homosexual until a relationship with a radio actor forces him to confront his nature.
Chabon’s a comic geek, and he really understands the medium at a DNA level. This is obviously his ode to the Golden Age of comics when the industry was born. My favorite part of the book is where Joe and Sam are trying to come up with a new hero, and their conversation about what will work and what won’t is a great deconstruction of what makes for a good superhero. The following weekend they spend with a group of artists cooking up several heroes to fill out an entire comic book made me feel the energy and creativity that seemed to be present in air of the New York comic scene in those days.
The book also highlights the flaws of funny books of the time, too. Chabon makes it clear that a lot of the stuff that came out was schlock thrown together cheaply and quickly, and the stories about creators getting ripped off by publishers are legion.
We also get into how comics were thought of back then. Despite their large sales, they were shunned and mocked by the general public and seen as lurid trash for children. Joe and Sam are proud of their creations, but they’re also embarrassed to be writing about men in tights. Joe often feels that he’s wasting his time with war looming and his family trapped in Europe, but it’s giving him the money he needs to try and get them out so he takes out his frustration by having The Escapist beating the Nazis in the pages of the comic book.
The first half of the book is the portion that I really love. There’s a point where Sam & Joe attend the premiere of Citizen Kane, and its clever story structure and inventive camera angles inspire them to push their own work into a more adult direction. (It’s also a nice nod to the way that comics eventually started breaking the old nine panel per page format and became more cinematic.) To me, that’s the high water mark of the book because for one brief shining moment, the two men see what a comic book could become and temporarily manage to push their own self-imposed limitations aside to create something new. Unfortunately, like any Golden Age, it doesn’t last
Joe can’t let go of his desire for the kind of justice that a character like The Escapist deals out regularly because he‘s looking for the wrong kind of satisfaction. Sam wants so badly to be ‘normal’ and respected that he ends up living a lie and trying to be anything but what he is: a gay writer of pulp fiction.
Chabon has crafted a great look at a bygone era and meshed it with a pretty good story about a couple of likeable characters so embroiled in their own private triumphs and tragedies that they don’t realize that they’re among the pioneers of a new art form even as they create it.
James Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like tJames Ellroy has called me a panty sniffer to my face. Granted, he calls everyone at his book signings a variety of colorful names, but I still like the idea that I’ve been personally mock-insulted by one of my favorite authors. This is his best novel, and my love for it is pretty much unconditional.
As proof of my devotion: My internet alias is from a character in it, and I’ve got an autographed copy of it sitting on my shelf along with an signed copy of the sequel, The Cold Six Thousand. The trilogy completes with the release of Blood's A Rover next week so I’m going back through the first two books, and it’d been a few years since I’d read American Tabloid. It was even better than I remembered.
This is Ellroy’s freaky take on American history from the late ‘50s through the JFK assassination, and it features Jack and Bobby Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes, and Jimmy Hoffa. It’s got the Mafia and the CIA, Cuba and Cuban exiles, the 1960 presidential election, the Bay of Pigs, the civil rights movement, and some heroin trade, just for laughs.
Ellroy uses one of his unholy main character trinities of Bad White Men doing Bad Things, but instead of limiting the action to post-war Los Angeles like he did with the LA Quartet of crime stories, he uses his three fictional characters chasing their own twisted obsessions and ambitions to probe the darker moments of a particularly juicy slice of American history.
Kemper Boyd is ex-FBI, who begins spying on the Kennedy’s for J. Edgar Hoover, and ends up devoted to Jack, even as he is moonlighting for both the CIA and the Mafia. He wants all his masters to unite in a play to oust Castro so that his behind-the-scenes schemes will make him wealthy enough to be just like a Kennedy, but he has to make sure to keep his loyalties compartmentalized.
Ward Littell is Kemper’s former partner and friend, and is still with the FBI. He hates the Mob and wants nothing more to go to work for Bobby Kennedy to get away from J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with persecuting harmless leftist groups. Even though he’s considered weak and cowardly, he shocks himself and everyone around him with the lengths he goes to fulfill his dream of being a Mob buster for RFK.
Big Pete Bondurant is a former LA cop and works as a criminal handyman for Howard Hughes. He runs blackmail divorce shakedowns and does the odd contract killing for the likes of Jimmy Hoffa in his spare time. Once arrested by Kemper and Ward, he likes Kemper’s style but hates Ward with a passion. Pete thinks he can ride shotgun to history by becoming Kemper’s partner in his various Cuban schemes, and he likes the sound of that rather than being Howard Hughes’s errand boy.
As all three of these men scheme and plot and commit horrible crimes to become more like the powerful men they are beholden to, they keep rubbing up against big events and desperately try to shape them to their will. What they all find out the hard way is that the people they’re dealing with didn’t become who they are by getting fooled by the men they regard as useful but inferior.
One of the things I absolutely love is Ellroy’s complete lack of buy-in to the JFK/Camelot bullshit. The myth goes that JFK was a glorious leader who was cut down because he stood up to the Bad Men in the country who wanted to take us into Vietnam. (An odd story considering that JFK is the one who started committing troops to Vietnam.) Ellroy brilliantly points out that the reality is that JFK was the son of a rich and corrupt man, and in one of the weirdest twists every, probably owed his presidency to the very people that he then let his zealot brother prosecute. (In all likelihood, the Mafia helped JFK take Illinois because of promises from guys like Frank Sinatra that JFK was reasonable.) RFK hated the Mob but turned a blind eye to the CIA recruiting Mafia contacts for trying to kill Fidel Casto. The Cuban exiles felt terribly betrayed when not only did JFK not fully commit to the Bay of Pigs invasion, he turned on them in the aftermath by having the Feds bust their training camps in the South.
If you believe in a conspiracy about JFK’s death, Ellroy points out that the guy might have brought it on himself by betraying so many people. And if there was a conspiracy, it probably wasn’t some Oliver Stone paranoid fantasy about some all-powerful military-industrial complex, it was probably a group of these type of guys, motivated by general JFK hatred that knew that all the embarrassing entanglements of JFK’s legacy would keep a real investigation from ever being done. (I personally don’t think there was a conspiracy, but JFK surely pissed off a lot of dangerous people by having his cake and eating it too and it makes for a great story.)
This is Ellroy at his best. Fully in control of his crazy staccato-brilliant-writer-with-ADD- style, and wildly spinning plots and counter plots with over the top violence and history as the backdrop.
Fair warning for those who haven’t read, there’s a lot of ethnic slurs in Ellroy’s work and he’s taken some heat for this over the years. He defends this by pointing out that he’s writing about evil white guys doing horrible things 50 years ago. They wouldn’t have been politically correct. He’s got a point, but it is pretty jarring reading in this day and age.
This conclusion to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is just as wholesome and uplifting as the previous three books with his usual cast of characters such aThis conclusion to James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet is just as wholesome and uplifting as the previous three books with his usual cast of characters such as corrupt cops, gangsters, hustlers, blackmailers, shakedown artists, bag men, thieves, junkies, drug dealers, dog killers, whores, johns, pimps, peepers, perverts, panty sniffers, and politicians. Oh, and most of them are murders, racist, and/or incestuous as a bonus, and that includes the hero of the novel.
It's 1958 and LAPD Lieutenant Dave Klein is a busy guy. In addition to his police duties he’s also a lawyer, a slumlord, and he does the occasional contract murder for hire. Klein gets assigned to investigate a weird break-in and vandalism at the home of a police sanctioned drug dealer, but with an ambitious US Attorney sniffing around the LAPD trying to build a corruption case it seems a bad time to be drawing attention to that particular rotten apple. Klein also takes a side gig from Howard Hughes investigating an actress who left him to star in a B-horror movie about communist space vampires, and he’d love to start chasing down a gang who pulled off a daring robbery of a fortune in furs to get a piece of their action. However, Klein soon finds himself in the middle of a living nightmare which pull his loyalties in multiple directions, and as the crimes pile up it’ll take a miracle to keep him from ending up in jail or the morgue.
The last two novels of the L.A. Quartet each used a trio of bad men doing bad things as their main characters, and Ellroy very consciously breaks the format here by making Dave Klein the solo lead and a first person narrator. This seems kind of like a call back to the structure of Black Dahlia and gives the conclusion a more intimate and personal feel, but it also seems like it doesn’t quite fit. As usual when things really start going off the rails Ellroy has his lead running around like a maniac both committing and investigating crimes while constantly making and betraying alliances that further his own agenda for the moment. When you have three characters doing this they can share the load and have them in various levels of trouble. By having only Klein to put in the soup it really stretches credibility too far to think that he wouldn’t have been arrested or killed about halfway through the book, and it certainly doesn’t seem like anyone would deal with him after the third or fourth time he’s double-crossed them.
Ellroy also advanced the clipped sentence fragment/stream of consciousness style he’d been building to new levels, and in fact, he probably pushed it too far in this one. L.A. Confidential has a flow to it that works whereas White Jazz too often veers into near gibberish. It’s a problem that shows up in other Ellroy novels, too. When he’s got this style on a leash he can really take it for a walk, but when it gets away from him it runs wild and devolves into near self-parody.
Probably my biggest disappointment with this is that it just doesn’t seem to deliver on the promise of the ending that L.A. Confidential pointed towards. That built to where it felt like the final book had to be an all-out war between two of the characters left standing. By bringing in a new character with the LAC angles only coming into play late in the game it doesn’t have the epic climax to the entire story I was hoping for.
It’s still a solid Ellroy novel, but it doesn’t quite deliver on the potential of what came before....more
American Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren'tAmerican Tabloid was about criminals making history and culminated with the plot to kill Jack Kennedy. In The Cold Six Thousand, the characters aren't trying to make history, they're just trying to survive it.
American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite books. The second part of this trilogy has always been a bit of a disappointment to me. I read both again to prep for the release of the final book, Blood's A Rover. With that one sitting here, just waiting for me to start reading, I'm feeling a bit more charitable to this one now.
I judged it harshly because after the mind blowing brilliance of American Tabloid's fictional re-telling of the JFK years from the perspective of a cop/criminal trio of Ellroy patented Bad White Men, anything was going to seem like a let down. Ellroy's crazy fragmented writing style works brilliantly when he keeps it on a leash like he did in L.A. Confidential or American Tabloid, but when it gets away from him, it slips into near self-parody, as I think it did in White Jazz. He comes dangerously close to that in this one, too.
And while American Tabloid felt like an epic re-telling of American history during the JFK era, The Cold Six Thousand has always had a slightly grungier and grimmer tone. That's understandable since American Tabloid mirrored the JFK administration. Even the guys trying to scam and steal their way to greatness felt like they were making history as they did it.
Here, with the fallout of the JFK assassination plot hanging over everything and coloring all the characters with varying degrees of paranoia and guilt, the schemes feel small-time and cheap, no matter how much money is involved or how grand the plot.
Howard Hughes wants to buy every casino in Vegas, and the Mob is selling, provided they keep their own people in place to run their skim operations and steal crazy Howard blind. Vietnam is ramping up and everyone in the book sees it as a business opportunity to start large scale heroin smuggling operations to fund their own pet causes.
An aging J. Edgar Hoover is obsessed with bringing down Martin Luther King Jr. for having the nerve to demand equal rights. All the players are worried about what Bobby Kennedy actually thinks about his brother's death and what he plans to do about it. Loose threads to the JFK plot are getting ruthlessly snipped and the only way to stay alive is to stay useful to the men in power which means that even the worst of them are being told to do things that push them to their limits and beyond.
Adding to the grimmer tone of this one is the new guy, Wayne Tedrow Jr. He starts out as a relatively clean Vegas cop being pushed towards contract murder by his rich asshole father, who wants him to join the family business of peddling hate against anyone but white Americans. When Wayne is given cause to start hating too, it makes him one of Ellroy's most uncomfortable characters to read about.
Wayne isn't an ignorant racist just hating for hate's own sake. He knows it's evil and wrong, but he's so committed to it that he practically creates his own purer form of racism that's scarier than the worst redneck rants. And he's one of the main characters so spending several hundred pages in his head isn't exactly a joy ride.
But reading this one now, after some time has gone by after my initial disappointment, I think I've gotten a better idea of what Ellroy was going for. Here's hoping that he can finish off the '60s and wrap this up in style....more
It’s January 1, 1950 in Los Angeles. A witch hunt for commies in the movie industry is gearing up under the guise of patriotiCan you dig this, hepcat?
It’s January 1, 1950 in Los Angeles. A witch hunt for commies in the movie industry is gearing up under the guise of patriotism, but its real agenda is to make the careers of the ruthless men running it and help the studios keep labor costs down. Corruption scandals have created a lot of bad blood between the city cops and the county sheriff’s department. Rival gangsters Jack Dragna and Mickey Cohen are fighting for control of the town. Everybody is too busy with their own schemes to care about the brutal murder of a nobody jazz musician. Everybody, that is, except for LASD Deputy Danny Upshaw.
Danny is a brilliant young detective with a secret he can't even admit to himself. He recognizes the murder as the work of a true madman and is instantly obsessed with finding the killer, but his investigation is hampered by the jurisdictional feuds between his department and the city cops.
Meanwhile LAPD Lieutenant Mal Considine is recruited to work on gathering evidence against Communists for a grand jury, and the job is just the thing he needs to boost his promising career and help him with some family issues. The downside is that he has to work with Buzz Meeks that he’s got an old grudge against. Meeks is an ex-cop who is equally comfortable paying a bribe or cracking a skull with his trusty night stick. He works as a fixer for Howard Hughes, and his cozy relationships with the crooks and film industry folks make him the perfect bag man and troubleshooter for the Red hunting enterprise. Eventually the two investigations intersect, and all three men have to deal with the consequences of who they are and what they’ve done.
This isn’t my favorite James Ellroy book, but it is a pivotal one in my own reading history because it’s the first one of his I read after finding a paperback copy at a library sale back before the world moved on so I credit it for turning me onto his work. It’s also a turning point for Ellroy because it’s where he created the template he’d follow for most of his later books. We’ve got an unholy trinity of three men capable of committing monstrous crimes in service of dubious causes to further their own ambitions and obsessions. Eventually circumstances will make them seek to atone for their misdeeds, but their attempts at redemption can be as destructive and blood soaked as the things they already regret. That three character structure and basic story arcs are pretty much the backbone of Ellroy’s career since this one.
Ellroy has a tendency to go long and let his plots wander in a hundred directions before gathering up the threads at the end. That gives his books a sprawling and epic feel, but it can also be frustrating and confusing as a reader if you’re trying to keep track of who did what and why. While I love the way that Ellroy mixes fact and fiction so that you feel like you’re reading the secret history that never made the newspapers it seems like he’s also trying to mimic the messiness of real events. It gives it some authenticity, but it sometimes feel like it’s clashing with attempts to fashion in into a coherent crime novel.
For me it’s always the characters that keep me coming back to Ellroy, and that’s the case here. There’s a mix of courage and cowardice in all of them, and Buzz remains one of my favorites as the guy who knows all the angles but in typical Ellroy fashion can’t resist doing something incredibly stupid. Danny Upshaw is also intriguing because he’s probably the closest Ellroy has come to having one of his leads be pure and uncorrupted, but even Danny isn’t above beating up a witness for information or committing a crime if it advances his cause.
While this doesn’t hit the highs of his best work it’s still a bold creation by a writer that shows the first use of all the elements he’d pull together to hit his peak....more