Book Review: American Tabloid, by James Ellroy


My copy of American Tabloid with minor cat damage.

James Ellroy paints a grimy view of mid-twentieth century America in his novel American Tabloid. Every cop is a crook and a thug. Every FBI agent is a thief, a liar, and violent. Every man has at least one mistress. The only man portrayed as honest in the entire novel is Robert F. Kennedy, but the rest of the family are crooks, cheaters, and womanizers. Women are portrayed mostly as sexual partners for the corrupt men of the world. The mafia are central to the story, and everyone does business with them, from the CIA to Raul Castro, to J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Ellroy writes in heavy period slang. Stupe. Dig. Zorched (apparently means drunk). Every profane phrase ever known to humanity is uttered, many forgotten to time and not listed in the Urban Dictionary. Every nickname for every street drug you can think of is included. Every racial slur is spoken or embedded into the narration.

The cast is an ensemble, there is no central protagonist. Most characters are unlikeable. There is a downward trend of character development. People become more evil as the story progresses, and those who seem honest at the beginning are corrupted.

The plot is convoluted, played out against the backdrop of actual history. Though fiction, Ellroy presents the novel as a plausible back story of the events leading up the assassination of JFK. He smartly took license with the names of many characters to free himself from the confines of historiography.

American Tabloid isn't quite a page-turner, but things move along at a quick pace. For someone from a later generation, the period slang and setting are also interesting. The novel is a window into late 50s popular culture. That said, it is episodic and has too much filler material. I assume the book was not written with much editorial intervention, because it's hard to imagine an editor not objecting to irrelevant back story and dead-end characters who do not contribute to the story arc.

The book is filled with violence. Some of the killings are unjust and shocking. People are beaten and tortured for petty reasons: theft, debt, to frame others for a crime, homosexuality, convenience, and the interests of the state. If you have a distaste for such things, this isn't the book for you. I'm unsure how many people are killed but could estimate anywhere from dozens to hundreds.

As for the ending, things accelerate and the book races over the last few chapters to the alternate-historical conclusion. It's a fun book, yet it's also kind of a downer. It presents a dirty, grimy, corrupt vision of American history.


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