The only novel from the past year that gave me a hard-on when I bought it was Blood’s A Rover by James Ellroy.
The typically massive book brings Ellroy’s Underworld USA trilogy to an end, climaxing the 20th century in a feast of shattered lives and the devastation of the American Dream.
I adored American Tabloid when it was first released and loved The Cold Six Thousand even more. Ellroy has disappointingly written of the second book as overcooked, but it rewards the effort and might just be the best American novel of the past decade.
The over-reaching tale saw driven men in extraordinary circumstances, fighting bloody wars for ideology, hard cash and the loves of their lives.
To give an example of the incredible events the characters are exposed to, I always think of a sequence near the end of The Cold Six Thousand - starring big Pete Boudrant, a company man who has done terrible things while clutching to his last strands of honour.
Big Pete is on a gun running mission somewhere in the Caribbean, only to find no guns on board. Realising the friends on board the boat are taking him out to kill him, Pete gets them before they get him, suffers a massive heart attack halfway through due to the stress and still manages to kill the last man by dropping a fucking anchor through the roof of a cabin, crushing the man beneath.
The trilogy is made up of dense books that leave you talking in that beautiful clipped style that can sing like poetry in Ellroy's hands. (And nobody else's. Any reviews that attempt to mimic his style should be avoided at all costs.)
Ellroy’s last in the series is surprisingly effective when he goes to a new place – somewhere strange and supernatural. Two major characters have genuinely horrific Haitian adventures that end in sudden, shocking and completely expected deaths. There are men who hold machetes in their inhuman arms who bring this death, drug-fuelled nightmares coming to life in the jungle.
And then the last 100 pages go somewhere new again – away from the violence, away from the blood-soaked history. A short piece at the start of the book that comes off as incredibly clumsy sings with renewed meaning in the context of the revelation over who actually speaks the words. It’s unusual for an Ellroy novel to spend so long on the calm denouncement and rewarding in all new ways.
Of course, there is still a shitload of the usual Ellroy themes and ideas. It’s a weird mix of politics and crime, shadow histories and celebrity scandal. These stories feature Serious Men, doing Serious Things, horrible people who murder in the name of dubious ideology, against the backdrop of an ever-changing America.
Like its predecessors, the plot of Blood’s A Rover revolves around three men caught up in the swirl of the vast events their own actions have set in motion.
There is Wayne Tedrow Jr - the main holdover from the second book – a mess of racial guilt who feels no shame at killing his hate-filled father. He works for the mob and Howard Hughes, a brilliant chemist who will not hesitate to put a bullet in the head of any who cross him. There is Dwight Holly, a minor character from previous books whose portrayal isn’t quite as sharp as other lead characters, his own confused ideology leaving him a little adrift, until he makes his final and unexpected stand, where he sacrifices everything for somebody he doesn’t even like.
And then there is Crutch, a goofy dork who stumbles on to the greatest conspiracy of them all and holds on for the ride. Donald Crutchfield is a creepy peeper, a minor character in any other book, but he perseveres, when other, stronger men fall. Three times in the book he is a second away from certain death, and he survives each time, twice with the aid of heavy firepower.
And it’s this creepy peeper who becomes the ultimate witness of history, the observer of this changing world. By the end, the line between fact and fiction is so blurred, the reader is left wondering which of the main characters were real and which weren’t – a situation not helped by Ellroy’s own deliberate fudging of the issue in interviews supporting the book.
It doesn’t really matter whether the characters actually existed or not, they are powerfully portrayed and weirdly frustrating. Blood’s A Rover won’t win over any new converts, but for those who have been lost in Ellroy’s world for some time, it’s a terrific experience and a great step into a brave, new world.