Underworld USA: America unimagined

Underworld USA banner image.

Look at the Prez … look at the clown car. There they go, pretending to be real people. There they go, pretending to be running the world. Can’t be! Those people? No way!


Waaaaaaay back.

1990s … 1970s … 1950s.


Look at them now. No. Not the ones in the foreground. Zoom past them. Zoom below the popular cast. Sharpen the focus on what’s underneath.

See the unfamiliar faces? See them talk and move about. See them hate and love. See them get it right and fuck it up. See them project the shadows that are the familiar faces and events.

That’s what James Ellroy wants in ‘Underworld USA’. Three novels. American Tabloid (1995), The Cool Six Thousand (2001), Blood’s a Rover (2009).

American history 1958-1973. Told the way it never was, with characters that never were, who explain the characters we always knew, and how things really were.

Ellroy channelling Will Graham from the Hannibal fiction? Immersed so deeply in the subject he comes out transcribing a Zeitgeist mind-set of that era. Like it’s an unhealthy obsession. Like it’s an alien psychology. Like it’s a sickness?

Threes within the three. Three men as focus for each novel.

Meet: Kemper Boyd, suave FBI agent and wannabe Camelot knight, infiltrating the Kennedy clan; Ward J Littel, former Jesuit, conflicted FBI agent, too liberal for J Edgar Hoover; fearsome Pete Bondurant, monster-sized anti-communist guerrilla, mob hit-man, friend of Boyd and enemy of Littel.

Watch: Bondurant and Littel again, this time as friends; Wayne Tedrow Jr, scion of Mormon KKK provocateur, policeman and enforcer turned Howard Hughes insider and Mafia fixer.

Track: Wayne Tedrow Jr again; Don Crutchfield, pervert voyeur turned detective, the-shape-of-things-to-come, the simulacrum of Ellroy himself, through eponymous friend and real-life Hollywood PI; schizophrenic FBI agent Dwight Holly, nemesis of Martin Luther King, black power, and himself.

See: a host of real people fictionalised as cogs in the machinations, from Jimmy Hoffa to Santo Trafficante, from JFK to J Edgar Hoover, from Sonny Liston to Sal Mineo.

Surveil: the FBI, Howard Hughes, the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan, the CIA, the Mormons – all with a bigger hand in events than you guessed. All more credible self-serving actors than anyone guessed.

Feature: ‘document inserts’ posing as telephone and bugging transcripts, memos, news headlines and stories, stringing along the narrative with faux verité. Making you wonder: what have I been reading all these years?

Read: truncated, clipped prose channelling protagonist Benzedrine-fuelled mania, paranoia, fear, eruptions of violence. The Patois of a bygone underworld. The creation of history by avaricious accident. The real world? Just beyond perceptibility.

Book jacket collage.

Aspen freak power king and Gonzo sage Hunter S Thompson once wrote: ‘When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.’ Maybe to legitimise his drug-warped and booze-soaked narrative rants. Maybe to voice his disappointment with his America.

Thompson might have been anticipating James Ellroy. His self-confessed background qualifies as weird. His body of work, including the LA Quartet — The Black Dahlia / The Big Nowhere / LA Confidential / White Jazz — qualifies as pro.

In Underworld USA, Ellroy eclipses even weirdness. Moving beyond into a genre and status that is just Ellroy on his own. Literature, yes. Great literature? Maybe. Better than most? Certainly.

American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and Blood’s a Rover imagine history between 1958 and 1973. Torpedo historiography. Build it back up again.

Like no one except maybe Gore Vidal, Ellroy reminds that American history is a chronology of criminal enterprise. Created by men and women hardly seen in the limelight. With phoney leaders playing bit parts in the convulsive events of those decades. Bit parts that obscure the main game and the real action.

In an atmosphere of anti-communist, anti-civil rights hysteria, Ellroy comes up with explanations for major events that jell with absurd contemporary American politics. Jell better than mass media jerk-off fantasies.

Ellroy: The Kennedy brothers killed by the Mafia, with FBI collusion, for refusing to support Cuban casino interests and not opposing Castro strongly enough. Martin Luther King killed because J Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes just don’t like him, thinking him a communist. The Ku Klux Klan and the Mormons on the spot to stoke the hatred and to provide the personnel.

Ellroy: American intervention in Vietnam escalates to create a CIA drugs empire.  A massive American heroin trade to fund its own completely unmandated operations. An inevitable sideline in personal corruption. An inevitable precursor to the ‘war on drugs’.

Ellroy: Nixon’s rise to power funded by the Mafia and Howard Hughes, supported by J Edgar Hoover: expunge the Kennedy legacy; destroy the civil rights movement; support puppet regimes in South America; allow new Mafia casino interests under puppet regimes.

Ellroy: Hippie spiritualism revealed as dangerously deluded: Crutchfield’s harrowing colonial sojourn, surviving a truly menacing, maniacal Vooodoo cult. Crutchfield is the shell-shocked survivor of the era. Crutchfield is Ellroy’s generation.  Ellroy’s generation is Washington now!

Together: better than a decade of NY Times best seller list spots.

See also my other reviews of James Ellroy novels and adaptations.

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