The International Writers Magazine: Book Review

American Tabloid by James Ellroy
ISBN: 0099893207 - Arrow Paperback (1995)
A Michael Halmshaw review

American 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.

Three fictional characters have been created for the novel –  Kemper Boyd, an FBI agent chosen by Hoover  to infiltrate the Kennedys, Pete Bondurant, a former LA sheriff’s 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 couldn’t, due to Hoover’s  tremendous support in Congress. It seems odd that the novel doesn’t  mention this, as so much of the book’s focus is on the awkward relationship between the two parties.  

Hoover’s 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 Ellroy’s speculation is true we do not know, but various programmes of questionable status have been exposed in Hoover’s 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 King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the KKK) was discovered only in 1971 when FBI offices were burgled, although it had been running since 1956. Ellroy’s 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 Ellroy’s 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 novel.

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 – Fidel’s 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 John’s downfall begins.

 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 don’t 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 UK

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