International Writers Magazine: Book Review
Tabloid by James Ellroy
ISBN: 0099893207 - Arrow Paperback (1995)
A Michael Halmshaw review
Tabloid is James Ellroy's examination of five years, from
November 22, 1958 until the same day in 1963. It focuses upon
one John Fitzgerald Kennedy, one J. Edgar Hoover, and most
importantly, the men around them.
characters have been created for the novel Kemper Boyd,
an FBI agent chosen by Hoover to infiltrate the Kennedys, Pete
Bondurant, a former LA sheriffs deputy and Howard Hughes
bodyguard and Ward Littell, an ex-colleague of Boyd, who specialises
in Mafia surveillance.
The novel begins with a keen eye on the tensions between the Kennedy
brothers and Hoover, who is depicted as having a controlled loathing
for Robert. The feeling at the time was mutual, as, once elected, John
and Robert gave serious consideration to having Hoover fired,
but realised they couldnt, due to Hoovers tremendous
support in Congress. It seems odd that the novel doesnt mention
this, as so much of the books focus is on the awkward relationship
between the two parties.
Hoovers portrayal is that of an extremely dangerous man;
he is not afraid to break the law to uphold it. Throughout the
novel, he assigns Littell various spying tasks and appears untouchable
in every sense. How much of Ellroys speculation is true we do
not know, but various programmes of questionable status have been
exposed in Hoovers time COINTELPRO, an operation
that encouraged operatives to infiltrate and disrupt communist
agencies inside the US (and a few non-communist groups, notably
Martin Luther Kings Southern Christian Leadership Conference and
the KKK) was discovered only in 1971 when FBI offices were burgled,
although it had been running since 1956. Ellroys Hoover is
a man firmly in control of every situation that arises, with a series
of contingency plans for any negative outcome; and any man that can
hold directorship over the FBI for 48 years is indeed likely to be incredibly
intelligent and cunning.
Primarily, American Tabloid describes the actions of the
three fictional protagonists, but a wide host of real people are
included, such as the Mafia bosses of Chicago, Florida and Louisiana
of the time: Sam Giancana, Santo Trafficante, and Carlos Marcello, respectively.
All three are loosely connected to the Kennedys, mostly via their father
Joseph, who reportedly developed Mafia connections through the
prohibition era. Ellroy is keen to propose links between the
Kennedy family and the mob, but does so through extremely vague terms
and anecdotes every reader will know what his take on the period
is, but he could never be sued for slander.
With regards to the characters, Joseph P. Kennedy is depicted as a ridiculously
rich mentor to his sons, which was likely the case, as he was
thought to have made millions from a sharp business sense and a fondness
for stocks. A crumbling Howard Hughes is included and Jack
Ruby also has a considerable role, but only for the sake of showing
an unconventional relationship with dogs, or his children.
Peter Lawford and Frank Sinatra both make cameo appearances as general
reflections of how people describe them Frank is more charismatic
and likeable than Peter Lawford, naturally.
Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters Union President since 1957 also
plays a significant role, and he is shown featuring in various
criminal activities. He also associates with and instructs Pete Bondurant,
who kills several people in the course of the multiple storylines. Since
Hoffa later gained a conviction (1967 for bribery), Ellroy openly accuses
him of more than anyone else in the novel.
To some extent, this is Ellroys most effective get-out clause
almost every significant killing in the novel is carried out
by one of the three main characters. Real life personalities are rarely
directly implicated, and CIA agents are even invented to formulate plans
for the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 towards the climax of the
Statistically - with regard to death tallies, at least - Ellroy
is spot-on, and he also hits the mark with regards to the failure of
the operation high-ranking American officers with little
Cuban intelligence believed civilians would be happy to beliberated
from Castro and would join their side. As people saw, thiswas not the
case Fidels popularity has been consistently high, and
what appeared to be an attack on their country was not well received.
Clenched fists are duly slammed on pieces of furniture and Johns
As is always the case with Ellroy, the dialogue appears to fit
perfectly. Ellroy once said, If it sounds like writing, I rewrite
it, and the language used here reads like speech between
normal people. Most contemporary novelists dont use terms
like Fuck pads, but Ellroy likely knew people who
said it and saw it fit to be included. The language is acccurate,
as is most of the history, but Ellroy relies upon subjective witness
accounts and speculation, leading to inferences rather than facts when
writing about the Kennedy brothers and Hoover.
Arguably, American Tabloid should have been written this
way, since it details the build up to the world-shaking events
of the 22nd of November, 1963 the seed for a thousand conspiracy
theories which for the novel, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy,
ends in confusion and gunshots.
© Michael Halmshaw March 2006
Michael is a Creative Writing major at the University of Portsmouth
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