Sunday, November 9, 2014

American Tabloid, by James Ellroy

James Ellroy is best known for his L.A. Quartet:  Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz. I've been reading a fair amount of Nordic noir over the past few years, but this is my first foray into American noir. In this massive novel, Ellroy takes on all the shady characters of the Kennedy years -- gangsters, molls, CIA and FBI agents, Cubans of both the pro- and anti-Castro varieties, and of course, the Kennedys themselves. The majority of characters in the novel are historical figures, so the line between fact and fiction is hard to discern at times, but the overall effect is wildly vivid.

I was 20 months old when JFK died on 22 November, 1963. What sense I have of that era is what I've cobbled together from bits and pieces. Camelot, to Kennedy's supporters, was a time of innocence and youthful exuberance. Ellroy eviscerates the Camelot myth. Innocence? Even if I give Ellroy some creative license, his novel makes it abundantly clear how many individuals and groups had vested -- very vested -- interests in demolishing Camelot.  And they were so interconnected!  The Italian mobsters lost a fortune in casinos when Castro took over Cuba; they supported anti-Castro refugees. Howard Hughes had connections to the mob, oodles of money, a drug addiction that needed to be fed, and an insatiable lust for lurid gossip. Bobby Kennedy had it out for organised crime, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was his father's underworld connections that had put his brother in the White House. JFK mishandled the Bay of Pigs invasion, leading to a wholesale slaughter of the Cubans who were trying to take their island back, and this infuriated the Cuban refugee community, the CIA (which had secretly backed and funded it), and the Mafia. J. Edgar Hoover had connections to nearly everyone and manipulated them all like chess pieces.
John Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Kennedy
The Kennedy political circle was every bit as corrupt as those before and after it.

As I said, this genre is new to me, so I can't compare Ellroy to other writers, but I would venture to guess that no one does gangsters like he does.  He seems to catch exactly the right tone without crossing the line into cliché or parody. Herschel Meyer (Heshie) Ryskind is one of Ellroy's creations, but he's clearly modelled on members of the Kosher Nostra -- Meyer Lansky, maybe.

An historical colleague is Jack Ruby (born Jacob Leon Rubenstein). Ellroy portrays Ruby as an ardent dog-lover (in the bestial sense) who is constantly surrounded by a variety of pooches in the sleazy nightclub he runs. I think the dog fancy may be purely fiction, but it's a vivid detail in Ellroy's picture of a weasel-like low-life who will cooperate with anyone who beats the stuffing out of him -- whether it's an Italian mobster or a CIA agent, to whom he describes the sex life of Heshie Ryskind.
Ruby said, "Heshie loves blow jobs. He gets blow jobs exclusively, 'cause he says it's good for his prostate. He told me he hasn't dipped the schnitzel since he was with the Purples back in the '30s and some shiksa tried to schlam him with a paternity suit. Heshie told me he's had over ten thousand blow jobs. He likes to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" while he gets blown. He's got nine doctors for all these diseases he thinks he's got, and all the nurses blow him. That's how he knows it's good for his prostate."  
J. Edgar Hoover, head of the CIA, wants to keep his job, and Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General and
Jimmy Hoffa, Teamster Union boss
head of the Justice Department, is just as keen to depose him, vowing that Hoover will be fired when his brother is re-elected. Hoover is in cahoots with the mobsters when it suits him and when it serves his battle against RFK,  The Jewish and Italian mobsters are collaborators or foes, depending upon the circumstances, but they are united in their opposition to the Kennedys.  An inconvenient truth, however, is that Irish immigrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. had very tight connections to both gangster communities.

Ellroy credits the Mafiosos with more brawn than brain-power. While this may be underestimating them (Jimmy Hoffa was in fact a law school graduate), it's entertaining, at least.
Hoffa said, "It's the handing down of grand jury indictments that bothers me. My lawyer said the Sun Valley thing is unlikely to go my way, which means indictments by the end of the year. So don't make Joe Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius." ...
Rosselli said, "It's Mount Ararat, Jimmy. Mount Vesuvius is in fucking Yellowstone Park."
Three characters -- all Ellroy creations -- weave through the whole novel like serpents, colluding with and opposing each other and every other character.  Pete Bondurant is essentially a thug-for-hire, and he's worked at some point for nearly every faction. Kemper Boyd is a former CIA man who still has ties within the agency, but he is equally comfortable in the Cuban refugee community, and he's enamoured of Jack Kennedy. He has so many irons in the fire that, when muddled, he can no longer remember which lies to tell. Ward Littell, a CIA agent, goes in and out of favour with Hoover, Boyd and Bondurant. At first charmed by Bobby Kennedy, he's soon disillusioned and joins forces with the underworld goons who would like to thwart him at least, or better still, to eliminate him altogether.
RFK, image of Fidel Castro, JFK
This change of heart puts Littell squarely back into Hoover's good graces. ("I will not comment on the attendant irony," as the Director is fond of saying.)

The skullduggery connected to the Cuban crisis is staggering. If Ellroy is even close to historically accurate, the CIA (probably with Mafia help) funded training camps to build invasion forces with anti-Communist refugees, and later -- when JFK had softened his stance on Castro -- to train teams of marksmen who would go to Cuba and assassinate him.

Silly me.  I'd thought drugging mercenaries was a recent phenomenon.
Pete meandered. The camp was Disneyland for killers. 
Six hundred Cubans. Fifty white men running herd. Twelve barracks, a drill field, a rifle range, a pistol range, a landing strip, a mess hall, an infiltration course and a chemical-warfare simulation tunnel. Three launch inlets gouged out of the Gulf a mile south. Four dozen amphibious crawlers rigged with .50-caliber machine guns. An ammo dump. A field hospital. A Catholic chapel with a bilingual chaplain. 
Pete meandered. Old Blessington grads waved hello. Case officers showed him some good shit. Dig Néstor Chasco--staging mock-assassination maneuvers. Dig that anti-Red indoctrination workshop. Dig the verbal abuse drills--calculated to increase troop subservience.
Dig the corpsman's amphetamine stash--pre-packaged preinvasion courage. Dig the action in that barbed-wire enclosure--peons flying on a drug called LSD. Some of them screamed. Some wept. Some grinned like LSD was a blast. A case officer said John Stanton hatched the idea-- let's flood Cuba with this shit before we invade.
Langley co-signed the brainstorm. Langley embellished it: Let's induce mass hallucinations and stage the Second Coming of Christ!!!!! Langley found some suicidal actors. Langley dolled them up to look like J.C. Langley had them set to pre-invade Cuba, concurrent with the dope saturation.
As Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy went on the warpath against organised crime. This has always baffled me, because it's well-known that his father had long-standing connections to the underworld, and that the Mafia had in fact pulled strings to get JFK elected. Ellroy's characters don't seem to understand it any better. Ward Littell, fictional CIA agent, goes on his own anti-corruption initiative and captures the account books of a secret "pension fund" which was essentially used for loan-sharking. He finally -- after an appalling chain of violence and death -- gets his hands on the account books and interprets the code in which the entries are written.
Among the Teamster Central States Pension Fund lendees: Twenty-four U.S. senators, nine governors, 114 congressmen, Allen Dulles, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Juan Perón, Nobel Prize researchers, drug-addicted movie stars, loan sharks, labor racketeers, union-busting factory owners, Palm Beach socialites, rogue entrepreneurs, French rightwing crackpots with extensive Algerian holdings, and sixty-seven unsolved homicide victims extrapolatable as Pension Fund deadbeats. 
 The chief cash conduit/lender was one Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. 
Vivid, gritty and dirty. There's not a single clean character in American Tabloid. No one has spotless hands, and few make it out of the book alive. Absolutely none of them is trustworthy, except perhaps James Ellroy, whose voice is always dead sure.  

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