DIY MFA Reading List: “American Tabloid” by James Ellroy

History rarely makes sense as it’s washing over us. By the time it does, historians have painted the past in such broad brush strokes that the minor personal melodramas which make it interesting are glossed over. The result can be a numbing succession of seemingly related dates, events, places, and names … with little or no personality.

James Ellroy’s American Tabloid presents the reader with an alternative history of America … one with personality in spades. This ultra-violent, seedy, hyper-paranoid slice of Americana culminates in the assassination of John F. Kennedy in November of 1963. Covering the five years leading up to the fateful day in Dallas, the novel follows three anti-heroes working sometimes together (but just as often at cross purposes) as they moonlight variously for the Mafia, FBI, CIA, Howard Hughes, Robert Kennedy’s Justice Department, exiled Cuban refugees plotting revenge on Fidel Castro, and themselves.

At first, it’s tough to resist Ellroy’s stylized prose. His sentences are pared down to the bare essentials, with paragraphs so sparse they resemble bone-white skeletons picked clean. Ellroy can go from Miami to Mexico to Guatemala in less than a page, and leave you feeling like he hasn’t rushed the pacing one bit.

As a writer, I found myself looking for tricks in Ellroy’s style which I might be able to emulate. Ellroy’s prose is all about forward motion, the steady layering-on of suspense, the threat of impending violence (imagined or, more often than not, real). He gives us just enough detail to imagine a scene, and not much else. The result is an endless series of deeply memorable visual and stylistic images; memorable because you’ve filled in the details yourself, forced to connect the dots between Ellroy’s scant details and your own imagining of the context surrounding them:

They cruised Havana. Animals and street riffraff clogged traffic. They never got above ten miles an hour.

It was 92 degrees at 10:00 p.m. Half the geeks out on the stroll wore fatigues and full Jesus Christ beards.

Dig those whitewashed Spanish-style buildings. Dig the posters on every facade: Fidel Castro smiling, Fidel Castro shouting, Fidel Castro waving a cigar.

Pete flashed the snapshot Boyd gave him. “Do you know this man?”

The driver said, “Sî. It is Mr. Santo Junior. He is in custody at the Nacional Hotel.”

“Why don’t you take me there.”

Pancho hung a U-turn. Pete saw hotel row up ahead – a line of half-assed skyscrapers facing the beach.

Lights sparkled down on the water. A big stretch of glow lit the waves up turquoise blue.

There’s not much there … and yet these brief sentences summon the personality of the place Ellroy is describing with such attitude that I feel like I’m cruising Cuba in a rented Cadillac drop-top.

Ellroy adheres to the “show … don’t tell” school of creative writing. We never get a glimpse into the interior lives of our characters, but have to infer what they’re feeling from their actions. After a particularly brutal set piece where a still relatively uncorrupted FBI agent named Ward Littell witnesses rapes and beatings from afar, then doles out a savage, drunken beating of his own on one of the perpetrators in order to force his cooperation in a shakedown, Ellroy tells us that “Littell walked back to his car. He started sobbing just over the border.”

And that’s about as touchy-feely as Ellroy is going to get. The actions described in the 600 or so pages of this novel would give the even the most hardened of criminals nightmares – the reader is assaulted with murders, chainsaw-assisted beheadings, torture, sodomy, drug addiction, rape and more … all of it unfolding in a cold, clinical style that sounds as if it was spooled off by a sociopath. The detachment here is chilling.

And this is ultimately why I began to pull away from the novel. Don’t get me wrong – Ellroy is a master of style, plot, and suspense. But when every character is, on some level, an emotionless sociopath driven by an insatiable hunger for money, power, or both … it’s hard for me to relate to the reversals of fortune which force the story along. I simply didn’t care whether the characters lived or died, whether they succeeded in their next hit or shakedown, whether they were going to kick the sauce and take down the Mob, or whether they were going to succumb to their baser instincts and become embroiled in a Presidential assassination attempt.

Of course we all know how the novel ends – Kennedy will be killed in Dallas. And Ellroy’s characters – in all of their shallow, filthy, ignorant, emotionally barren glory – will be there to help pull the trigger.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.