Ryan Findley
Retro Read

American Tabloid

By - Aug 7th, 2011 04:00 am
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Summer is the season of chick lit. It is known. Just as summer is the season of cinematic blockbusters primarily aimed at the 30-something male demographic, it is the season of beach reading and Oprah’s book club, and that means chick lit. It means romances and hardy female detectives and 20-somethings finding themselves in the midst of a 250-page novel. (No more than 250 pages. This is beach reading.)

Perhaps because I am contrary, I like to read my heavier novels during the summer months. There’s something delightfully subversive about reading Dostoyevsky on a beach, or toting your gargantuan complete and unabridged Shakespeare to the annual Fourth of July picnic. Conversely, there’s something infinitely comforting about reading stories about women who have affairs, breakups,or  bad hair days, and yet everything works out for them during the long twilights of January. Honestly, reading about anything more serious than a bad haircut in January is likely to send me over the edge and spiralling down into a deep depression.

However, there are some writers that walk the edge between the lightness of summer and the seriousness of winter, and they can be read any time of the year. One of the best is James Ellroy, writer of Los Angeles noir fiction and true crime. You know Ellroy — you just don’t know you know him. You remember LA Confidential, with Russell Crowe and Kim Bassinger? Or how about The Black Dahlia, with Josh Hartnett and Hillary Swank? Both are based on Ellroy novels of the same name.

My absolute favorite of Ellroy’s novels is American Tabloid, the first in what is referred to as his “USA Underworld” trilogy. Published in 1996, it tells a fictionalized version of American history during the late 50s and early 60s. J. Edgar Hoover is a petty tyrant, the Kennedys pal around with gangsters and everyone knows or is trying to find out everyone else’s secrets. It’s a grimy and glamorous vision of a grimy and glamorous period, and Ellroy writes it perfectly. His depiction of what actually went down at the Bay of Pigs is so perfectly tuned it’s almost impossible not to believe that what he is creating out of his imagination is what actually happened.

American Tabloid is a sweeping epic of a novel, and it’s only the first piece of the story that Ellroy tells.

Ellroy’s prose is masculine. His subject matter is pretty male-oriented, too (murder, intrigue, lots of whiskey), but what I love about all of Ellroy’s work is how very clipped and heavy-handed his words are. Ellroy is a man’s writer, even more so than, say, Jonathan Franzen. He utilizes blunt verbs, short sentences and little punctuation to great effect. Indeed, sometimes he doesn’t actually bother to construct a complete sentence, particularly when he’s crafting internal monologues for his characters. But it is no less effective. He does it very, very well.

Not everything works out in Ellroy’s stories, which makes them generally ineligible for being real summer reading, but they are fairly easy to read, despite their length. Ellroy’s writing style ensures that you don’t spend a lot of time working out the intricacies of grammatic structure. He prefers to smack you upside the head with his words, or even shoot you right between the eyes. Bam. A double tap to the head.

If you can handle unhappy endings, you should read American Tabloid. (And if you like American Tabloid, move on to White Jazz.)

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