On Tuesday, September 22, Alfred A. Knopf will publish James Ellroy‘s Blood’s A Rover, the third and final installment of the Underworld USA novels that began with American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. The new book is not only a fine finish to that trilogy but also strikes me as both Ellroy’s most ambitious novel (drawing on seven different perspectives) and the most accessible entry into the trilogy. As with its predecessors, Blood’s A Rover continues to explore how private lives can impact very public and highly political events, spanning in this case from the aftermath of the King and Kennedy assassinations to the eve of the Watergate break-ins. But this new book is also, at its heart, a love story, with each of the three leading men — Wayne Tedrow Jr., employed by Howard Hughes; Dwight Holly, reporting to J. Edgar Hoover; and Don Crutchfield, a window peeper turned obsessive investigator — falling under the spell of women, including a radical liberal activist, Joan Rosen Klein, who may stand as the most complex female character in all the author’s books.
Later this week, the Washington Post Book World will podcast my recent phone interview with Ellroy; I’ll post that link as soon as it’s available. Then on Saturday, September 26, at 7 p.m., Ellroy will make his only D.C.-area appearance at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland — the closing night headliner of the 2009 Fall for the Book Festival. (I’ll be there; shouldn’t you too?) In the meantime, I’m glad to preview that more formal interview and that upcoming reading with a quick conversation that Ellroy and I had earlier this summer, offering insights both into the book and into the man behind it.
Art Taylor: Blood’s a Rover marks a magnificent end to the Underworld USA trilogy, a crowning achievement for sure. Had you seen these books as a trilogy from the very beginning?
James Ellroy: I knew the second novel would be my big novel of the 1960s. The history was easy to foresee: the civil rights movement, the ultimate assassination of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, more Cuban exile shit, more mob shit, Howard Hughes buying up Las Vegas, general civil rights unrest, the Klan, and my two survivors from American Tabloid, Ward Littell and Pete Bondurant, getting further into the shit. It took longer to put Blood’s A Rover together, because going from ’68 to ’72, you’re going to have the summer of the political conventions and the ’68 election and all that hoo-ha, but my mob guys had to get to a cool locale, and it took me a while to come up with the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It’s full of voodoo, which is cool shit and certainly intensifies all the black militant shit in L.A.
It’s been interesting to try to chart the line between documented/accepted history and your re-visioning of that history in all of these books. How do you approach that research?
One of the questions I never answer is what’s real and what’s not. The established history is there to be culled, to be analyzed, and then I extrapolate off of it fictionally with both real-life and fictional characters. For example, Don Crutchfield in Blood’s A Rover is a real-life private eye here in L.A. He has a website, and he’s a very successful Hollywood private eye, largely involved in the Michael Jackson pedophile cases. [Note: This interview took place before the death of Jackson.] I realized I could utilize Crutchfield differently. But he and I will never say what’s real and what’s not. Did he really go to the D.R. and kill all those people, kill a lot of Castroite Cubans? Well, maybe, maybe not.
Blood’s A Rover looks at the wages of right-wing political action and explores liberal activism in new ways — with characters examining their own ideologies and changing as a result. Is any of this related to recent history in America, or is it solely embedded in the history of that era, or do various characters’ choices and actions stem from your own reflections on politics?
This has nothing to with the world today or the world over the past several years — either the current man in the White House or his predecessor. I conceived of this book before any of that shit started to happen. What I wanted to write was a book that’s about the necessity of belief and about the exigent factors of political conversation and spiritual conversion. I wanted to create a diverse panoply of characters who thought a great deal about what things meant. Wayne Tedrow was utterly exhausted morally from his racist journey in The Cold Six Thousand, and he certainly did not start out as a racist. And he keeps blundering around, killing black people, and then he falls in love with a black woman. This represents a seismic shift in my dramatic thinking. Dwight Holly becomes radicalized, and so does Don Crutchfield. It was the time, and I didn’t realize it until a lot of personal events intersected within my life: the dissolution of my marriage, my turbulent love affair with a left-wing woman named Joan, and my turbulent love affair with a married woman named Kathy who had a daughter who wasn’t mine, the basis of Karen in the book.
Each of the characters here seem to be looking for women — Dwight Holly is looking for love and family with Karen and finds a passionate connection with Joan; Wayne Tedrow is trying to find something with Mary Beth Hazzard; and Crutch is literally looking at woman and pursuing the women central to the case and, poignantly, searching for his own vanished mother. In other interviews, you’ve said you were putting aside talking about your own mother, but Crutch seems to be echoing some of that longing and obsession, and your new series for Playboy is all about your “pursuit of women.” Women have often played important roles in your fiction, but it feels like the goals are different here, the stakes a little higher somehow, yeah?
Yes, it is. I’m writing a memoir that will come out in book form next year. The first two parts have been serialized in Playboy — in the April and June issues — and then the rest will appear in September and November. Women have been the big obsession of my life. It’s the biggest story of my life. It’s bigger than the story of my life. My mother and her murder, so I’m writing this memoir which is called The Hilliker Curse.
Tough to get away from that story?
Yeah, it is tough to get away from it. So why run?
Each of your novels has been consistently more ambitious than the one before — an admirable raising of the stakes as an author — and in this book it strikes me that you’re delving into different social and political viewpoints more completely than you have in previous books: Marsh Bowen’s journals, Karen Sifakis’ journals, Joan’s letters and then her own section at the end. Was delving into those viewpoints part of a self-conscious “upping the stakes”? Or what, in your opinion, makes Blood’s a Rover stand out as different from and better than your previous books?
The emotional resonance of this book. It’s not quite as complex as the last two novels. It’s a more open-hearted book. There’s the pathos of Don Crutchfield who’s the voice of American ingenuity. I transposed my past, being a window peeper with a dead mother, to his past. I made Crutchfield younger than he is in real life. I didn’t go around killing communists or fomenting revolution in the D.R. But I did a lot of the early perverted shit that Crutchfield does in the book. And it’s wrenching, his love for Joan, it’s wrenching. And they have very few moments together toward the end of the book. Dwight Holly’s relationships with Karen Sifakis is wrenching. It’s preestablished in the text that the relationship has been going on for a period of years when the book opens. There’s children in this book, there’s a lost child in this book, there’s families. It is utterly different from any other book I’ve ever written. There’s a closeted gay black cop — very very bright and very very guarded and seethingly angry.
And that black cop, Marsh, and Dwight Holly develop a respect, a relationship.
Yeah, a Klan boy and a bright black kid from L.A. These people — they may be specious. Karen calls herself on her speciousness all the time. They may be hypocritical. Karen is the most introspective character in the book and calls herself on that all the time. But they pay for their lives in blood. And they change and they care about the world and they want to change the world. And their thinking and their actions shift radically. And then everybody’s does. And then it just all goes away at the end. It disperses, leaving the kid alone. If the last hundred pages of that book don’t break your heart, then you don’t have one.
Critics of your other books have accused you of being racist, sexist, homophobic. Do you pay any attention to that criticism?
I don’t pay attention to it. I’m empathetic with people. This book does not represent an exponential shift in my thinking. It’s about people from 1968 to 1972 and about the lessons I learned from Joan. All I really want is to get her one up in San Francisco. I still have her address. I just want to put it in her hands with all my love and an expression of my thanks. And then maybe see her at a book gig and just wave to her across the room.
I had a series of relationships with women that burned my life down, and I wrote a different kind of book. And then I wrote a book about women. And then I’m gonna write a new kind of book next that I’m not gonna talk about. ♦