Grime Pays

James Ellroy’s cruise through America’s shadows continues with the second part of his triology.

At various points throughout The Cold Six Thousand, a vivid riff on the cruelest events of the 1960s that's just been issued in paperback, author James Ellroy subjects parts of speech to the same viciousness that marks the book's plot. Sometimes adjectives wind up in the crosshairs. On other occasions, he drops the hammer on articles and prepositions. Even lowly punctuation marks aren't immune to his literary brand of justice. Entire descriptive passages go by without the appearance of a single comma.

But Ellroy has nothing against the words he uses (and doesn't use) in such a lethal way. "I wanted to write a book where the ugliness and bluntness of the language matched the actions of the characters and the outrageousness of the '60s," he says. "And the simple declarative sentence -- bam! bam! bam! -- is deliberately repetitive; it's forceful, and it's meant to be mesmeric and hypnotizing. It isn't that I dislike pronouns or adverbs. It's that I'm trying to tell the story in the most persuasive, most powerful way possible."

He's got a helluva tale to tell: The second part of a planned "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy that began with 1995's American Tabloid, Ellroy's latest story imagines the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., not to mention the Bay of Pigs invasion, as links in a single chain of collusion and deceit assembled by what Ellroy calls "an unholy nexus of renegade CIA men, crazy Cuban exiles and the Mob." These are familiar elements among JFK conspiracy theorists, but Ellroy is more interested in exploring the parts of our culture that rot in the shadows than in cracking the case.

James Ellroy slays 'em.
James Ellroy slays 'em.

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"I think a lot of these people should just get over it," he says. "If we were to find out exactly who killed Jack Kennedy, and why, it would be front-page news for a week, and then it would blow off. There would be no sea change in the American consciousness, because we've got enough to worry about with all these camel-fuckers over in the Middle East and global warming and all that shit. So it's irrelevant. Besides, by the rules Jack lived by, he got what he deserved."

So, too, does a batch of vividly fictionalized figures who cross paths with Ellroy's three protagonists: conflicted liberal Ward Littell, anti-Castro gunman Pete Bondurant and racist cop Wayne Tedrow Jr. Six Thousand's cast includes millionaire Howard Hughes, portrayed as man obsessed with pure blood even as he shoots dope into his penis, and J. Edgar Hoover, whose sophisticated comic banter with Littell suggests a twisted variation on Oscar Wilde.

"He didn't talk like that, but the reader doesn't know it," Ellroy notes, adding, "I figured out something a while back, and I believe this to be true: I don't think J. Edgar, or Gay Edgar, or whatever you want to call him, ever had sex with man, woman or beast. I think he was that repressed."

Ellroy suffers from no such affliction. He looks upon early works like Suicide Hill with magnanimity, but says they're "juvenilia compared to what I'm doing now." And he's cavalier when the subject turns to films based on his work. An adaptation of My Dark Places, an autobiographical account of his attempt to solve the murder of his mother, who was strangled when he was ten, starts filming next month -- David Duchovny will play Ellroy. In addition, Bruce Willis wants to turn American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand into an HBO miniseries, with him starring as Ward Littell. But Ellroy claims not to care if neither project turns out as well as L.A. Confidential, the movie version of his best-known book.

"I don't know if the miniseries will be made or not, and I don't think about it," he says. "If everything happens, great -- and even if they're poorly executed, they'll bring people to the books. And the books are inviolate."

 
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