The Tyranny of Evil Men
Any kiddie in school can love like a fool,
But hating, my boy, is an art.
Afriend of mine has a book on the market right now, an “alternate history” novel that asks “What if the fortunes of John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton were reversed?” That is, what if JFK had been impeached over a sex scandal and Clinton assassinated in the midst of a Camelot-like presidency? Without going into the convoluted plot (it requires that Clinton be a general and a war hero), the point of the book is basically that had Clinton kept it in his pants he would be remembered by history as fondly as Kennedy, because both were Great Good Men brought down by Small Evil Men.
My friend asked me what I thought of his book. My only reply was, “Man, you need to read James Ellroy.”
Lord Acton had it backward power does not corrupt. Rather it is seized, wielded, and kept solely by those who are already corrupted enough to do the necessary dirty work. Or in other words, it is the Small Evil Men who are really in charge and always have been. James Ellroy knows this their hyperviolent world of conspiracies and raw hate has been his stomping-ground for years. It’s a world most of us suspect is there yet refuse to consider lest we lose our most treasured illusions, but Ellroy walks through this hell like it’s his backyard, talking the most audacious trash and offering swigs of brimstone from the flask on his hip. Even if your only exposure to Ellroy has been the film version of L.A. Confidential, you know the Demon Dog of American Letters howls long and bites hard.
The Cold Six Thousand is the second part of Ellroy’s Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which began with 1996’s American Tabloid, a slow ride behind the scenes of American politics from the late Fifties to the Seventies as the Small Evil Men do their work. In Tabloid Ellroy did the impossible, concocting a JFK assassination conspiracy that involved the FBI, the CIA, the Cubans, the Mob, Jimmy Hoffa, and Howard Hughes, and making it plausible. The new novel begins with the assassination of one Kennedy and ends with the assassination of another, with Oswald, Jack Ruby, the Mississippi Klan murders, the Watts riots, Martin Luther King, and Vietnam in between, all seen through the eyes and carried out by the hands of fewer people than one needs all one’s fingers to count. Incredible though this may seem, Ellroy pulls it off by continually reminding us that, when he hates enough, one man can do anything.
Las Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow, Jr. lands in Dallas the morning of the Kennedy assassination, bearing the “cold six thousand,” the fee paid him by the bosses of the Las Vegas machine to kill a pimp named Wendell Durfee in the course of extraditing him. It’s a job Wayne neither relishes nor is particularly suited for, and he is baffled as to why he was chosen to do it. His failure, and Durfee’s subsequent revenge, send Wayne on a five-year quest for payback, during which he acquires a profound ability to hate, ably nurtured by his father, a Vegas bigwig who publishes incendiary tracts, and his newfound associates. Said associates, introduced in American Tabloid, include Pete Bondurant, ex-procurer for Howard Hughes and current drug-runner for the CIA, and Ward Littell, ex-FBI agent and attorney for Hughes, Hoffa, and Sam Giancana despite a deeply moral streak in his compromised soul. Dallas haunts them. They live in the black heart of the American Nightmare.
In chapters which cycle among the viewpoints of Tedrow, Bondurant, and Littell, Ellroy chronicles the slow damnation of all three men, engineered with deliberation by Tedrow pere, a rogue CIA chief with a seemingly outlandish plan to manufacture heroin in the Vietnamese jungle and distribute it to the black community, and J. Edgar Hoover, who is as mellifluous and sinister as the ghost of Sydney Greenstreet as he plots the destruction of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. All of these men act with impunity, under cover of a corrupt establishment and monstrous public policy, but none is his own master and none will walk away with his soul intact. This is noir writ large, and nobody does it better than Ellroy.
Not that the book is without flaws. A master plotter with a gift for characterization Ellroy certainly is, but the further he ranges into the realm of prose styling, the less sure-footed he becomes. He’s fond of the snapshot impression, the quick image, a technique he employed to middling success in his earlier novel White Jazz. Here Ellroy attempts a staccato narrative voice that is meant to be gutteral and visceral but often reads as if he’s writing in Morse Code:
Wayne watched. Wayne yawned. Wayne stretched. Peavy walked back. Two men walked with him.
Two men walked close.
Wayne rubbed his eyes. Wayne did a double take. Fuck it’s Rock Hudson and Sal Mineo.
Peavy grins. Peavy snaps a popper. Rock and Sal snort. They grin. They giggle exultant. They get in the limo. Peavy assists them. Peavy grabs their ass cheeks and hoists.
The limo pulled out. Wayne tailed it. Wayne got tailgate-close. A window furled down. He saw smoke. He smelled maryjane.
See Dick run. When the novel is going at full momentum, this technique is easily ignored and frequently effective. During slower passages, however, one may find oneself screaming for a subordinate clause, a semicolon, anything.
A further caveat: the phrase “Small Evil Men” should probably be amended to “Small Evil White Men.” Ellroy writes brutal fiction set in brutal times, and while his fiction displays sufficient perspective to deflect a perception of himself as racist, he does tend to lean rather heavily on stereotypical minor characters. His Mobsters are thoroughgoing goombahs, his Jews are so Yiddishe you could just plotz, and with only a few exceptions, his black characters will not exactly win him accolades from the NAACP. The best approach to Ellroy is always to check your liberal tendencies at the door and trust in the cosmic justice that awaits all in the best tradition of noir. In the end, everybody always pays.