Fiction Review: American Tabloid by James Ellroy

It feels weird to write a review of a book you don’t finish (I got to around 200 pages out of 592). But I think there’s a legitimacy in talking about why you don’t complete a book.

My decision in choosing American Tabloid came about for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think I just finished watching L.A. Confidential, and I was curious about actually reading a James Ellroy book.

I must’ve read Ellroy a long time ago, but I don’t remember doing so.

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I’m also part of an online forum where one of the members recommended it. It’s not a fiction forum, but it’s a place where I trust a lot of the stuff posted. But alas, I was let down on this one.

I read the first few pages before I made my purchase, and I can say that Ellroy was at his best there. I won’t say that it was all downhill after that, but the initial promise of reading thrilling, masculine prose, the kind you get from reading crime noirs, kind of loses it flavor as the story progresses.

There’s a couple of things that contribute to the conclusion above. But I’ll get to those a little later.

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Here’s an editorial review from publisher’s weekly about what the story’s about:

“…Ellroy’s visceral, tightly plotted new novel unfolds on a much wider stage, delivering a compelling and detailed view of the American underworld from the late 1950s to the assassination of JFK. Demythologizing the Camelot years, Ellroy (White Jazz) depicts a nexus of renegade government agencies, mobsters, industrial tycoons and Hollywood players fueling the rise and fall of the Kennedy administration. The story hinges on the entanglements of three 40-something government mercenaries who play major, behind-the-scenes roles in such events as the Bay of Pigs and the assassination of the president.”

As you can see from the review above, there’s a ton going on here. It’s so ambitious on so many levels.

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I think the main structural problem for me is the jumping around between the three main character Boyd, Littel, and Pete.

Every time you seem to go somewhere interesting with a character, the chapter ends, and you start off with another guy.

Here’s the opening paragraph of the first chapter with  THE Howard Hughes and Pete Bondurant:

He always shot up by the TV light. Some spics waved guns. The head spic plucked bugs from his beard and fomented. Black & white footage; CBS geeks in jungle fatigues. A newsman said, Cuba, bad juju-Fidel Castro’s rebels vs. Fulgencio Bastista’s standing army. Howard Hughes found a vein and mainlined codeine.

I think this paragraph highlights Ellroy’s strength which is writing about action and violence. People doing stuff.

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American Tabloid, however, contains a lot of back and forth dialogue that feels like the characters are being fed lines from an earpiece.

[Possible Spoiler Alert] The biggest problem I think is the “historical fiction” aspect. I personally don’t think the JFK assassination plot was due to a lone shooter either and that there were probably multiple actors involved. Which seems to be the way Ellroy is moving the story. (I don’t know because I never finished it).

However, Ellroy’s fictional characters and story lines alongside such gigantic, historical figures and events don’t really seem believable enough to me.

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Usually, when I read an author for the first time, I like to read his strongest work. I don’t think this was it for Ellroy, although many reviewers on Amazon may disagree with me. Next time, I’ll try to start off with the first part of the L.A. Quartet series: The Black Dahlia.

 

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