James Ellroy’s USA

Blood’s a Rover is the third novel in a series by James Ellroy depicting the “secret history” of U.S. government action against the Cuban Revolution, global anti-colonial struggles, and domestic Black liberation struggles circa 1955-1974.  FBI agents, government officials, and mobsters find themselves on the same programmatic page and payroll: the bi-partisan COINTELPRO program.  Ellroy gives us the crooks and con men (and con women), the creeps and peepers — the whole gamut of lumpen scum.  His heroes are local and federal cops who thrived on Washington’s massive funding of counterrevolution.

Like films of Samuel Fuller and novels by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Blood’s a Rover finds aesthetic energy in cynicism, sarcasm, and glorification of the most destructive and devastating actions of alienated individuals.  Cuban solidarity and Black militancy are sucker games run by villains and megalomaniacal psychopaths in love with the sound of their own voices.  Politics is a game for very unmerry pranksters and grown-up delinquents: the marginalized and alienated detritus of class society.  Armed robbers may ape the language of revolutionaries, but revolutionaries in Blood’s a Rover can only be out for themselves.  This is the David Horowitz version of the Sixties, to be sure.

James Ellroy finds his characters under the rock of history, and no matter how compelling his novel is, the class-conscious political reader feels the need for a shower after every chapter.  Ellroy’s protagonists are the kind of men and women who snitched during the McCarthy witch hunt and trained the death squads serving Washington and Wall Street from the Caribbean to Central America to the Congo.

Labor militants and anti-war activists will find no new revelations in the supposedly secret history contained in Blood’s a Rover.  But the breadth and scale of the narrative do bring home the central truths of the Cold War in the United States.  Fundamentally, Washington hired anyone and did anything to halt the anti-colonial revolution abroad and the Black freedom struggle at home.  Each task reinforced the others, and Ellroy’s haunted band of self-righteous and frequently self-pitying protagonists (involved in everything from the assassination of Martin Luther King to launching heroin into the urban ghettos) stick at nothing to achieve their aims.

The fact that Ellroy, for all his finally absurd and enervating literary mannerisms and Rat Pack “cool daddy” jargon, is such a powerful writer means that the sympathy elicited from the reader for his murderous racists and counterrevolutionary gusanos is all the more disturbing.  We find ourselves implicated here as effectively as we are by loyalty we develop for other politically retrograde pop media characters: vigilantes like Superman and Batman, Scorsese’s gangsters, and Hitchcock’s more charming maniacs.

Ellroy in a 2009 interview promoting Blood’s a Rover bragged that he was so tough he “gargled with the AIDS virus.”  Of course Ellroy’s schtick is catnip to petty-bourgeois armchair cop-lovers craving the tang of “real life” while safely shielding themselves from the class reality of the world they loathe and fear.  (We also see this on the part of white creators and fans of TV programs like The Wire which supposedly give entré to the reality of Black urban life, but actually serve to support artistically the Bill CosbyBarack Obama line of attack on proletarian Black youth.  Ishmael Reed has written brilliantly and often about this).

Like Elmore Leonard’s and Quentin Tarantino’s, Ellroy’s USA is about as real as an MGM backlot.  Page after page of near-pornographic-scale depictions of racism and racist abuse are presented as forthright and authentic, but the authenticity is used only as another tool to titillate cop-loving law-and-order fantasy consumers.  Swimming in such a backflow of reactionary daydreams poisons Ellroy’s art.  The same poison makes his commerce swell, attracting an all-too-eager audience today.

Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.  His blog is Marxist Update.  He is on Facebook.

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