Pics Or It Didn’t Happen
American Tabloid is a helluva book once you get over the fact that it’s not about Jennifer Aniston’s personal life and then subsequently get over the fact that it’s not not about that either. Tabloid is as sleazy and voyeuristic as Howard Hughes’ Hush Hush, but its agenda is something far murkier.
Even though he’s not a central character, J. Edgar Hoover is a crucial one, and it’s hard for me not to think a lot about how prescient and formative his approach to politics (and life, I guess) has been to American culture. It’s crazy to think that surveillance has become a popular leisure activity (posted at — My Bed Office — with — A Pile of Comic Books). Do you think a still-living Hoover would try to buy Mark Zuckerberg, murder him, or kiss him on the mouth? I bet he’d be all about Kim Kardashian, too.
There’s nothing I fear quite like a nerd in power because nobody bullies like somebody who has been bullied themselves. America is so often portrayed as the dumb jock (KENNEDYYYYY*), but if Ellroy is to be believed, the Revenge of the Nerds has already happened, and the results are contemporary celebrity culture, social networking, and basically every U.S. security organization. Starting wars, spying on acquaintances, watching celebrity sex tapes, now available for the masses! I’d buy that for a dollar!
It’s kind of refreshing to read something so violently anti-nostalgic. God bless this season of Mad Men for trying to undo the damage of its visual sumptuousness. “DID YOU GUYS NOT GET THAT THIS WASN’T A BETTER TIME? DO WE NEED TO ADD MORE RACISM AND SEXISM BEFORE THIS IS OBVIOUS TO YOU? JESUS.” American Tabloid avoids this problem by spending more time in people’s heads and less on their suits. We know Kemper Boyd is a handsome, well-dressed, charming bastard because that’s how other people react to him, but Ellroy pulls no punches in letting us see this scummy, decaying, insecure person from the inside out. He doesn’t seduce us the way Don Draper does because we spend too much time finding out how our sausage is made (LOL, wait ‘til those people losing their shit over pink slime find out about hot dogs!).
I know it’s cheap to compare everything to Mean Girls, but when J. Edgar Hoover asks Kemper “Regulation Hottie” Boyd to infiltrate the Plastics and tell him all the horrible stuff Regina says so they can laugh about it OH COME ON, IT WRITES ITSELF, down to the moment when JFK essentially calls Boyd “a less hot version of me.” Except Jack is totally Karen who can’t believe that everyone thinks she’s a slut (can’t you just see him applying a backwards rhinestone K to his chest?!), Bobby is Gretchen Weiners with his hair full of secrets (and who will never let you forget that his father is the inventor of toaster strudel), and Big Joe is (of course!) REGINA GEORGE. I heard he does car commercials in Japan. Honest to god, it’s not much of a stretch, given how much talk there is of Kennedy hairstyles and general charm and moral turpitude. Hoover is almost too gay to function, but that’s only okay when the screenwriter of Milk says it!**
Lately I’ve been giving a lot of thought to debate over What Is Right vs. What Is Expedient and how that debate has evolved into Can Something Be Right If It Is Also Expedient (see: Obama says gay marriage A-OK by him all of a sudden and rather conveniently, but you know what, it’s a big deal nonetheless and a pretty crucial political stride). Maybe this is cynical, but at this point my answer is YES. More often than not, doing the right thing for expedient reasons is the only way the right thing gets done, and good god, fuck intentions, I just want things to get better. The problem with truly believing in something is that it can make you sloppy.*** Ellroy treads alllll over this territory, especially with the character of Ward Littell.
WARD LITTELL****! What a piece of shit! And a piece of shit who, of course, becomes one in his attempt to do the right thing. The best of intentions end up screwing him over, and he responds by bottoming out and playing a mean game of catch-up to Pete Bondurant in the sociopathy department. Turning the “relatable one” into the meanest bastard of them all is an old trick, but damn if it doesn’t still pack a wallop.
Dig another reversal: having the objectively worst and most awful person be the most likable character. Pete Bondurant (who notably gets the only sex scene that doesn’t read as “[sex happens]”) is a total monster, and watching him fall into the kind of turgid adoration that makes him listen to every song about doing the twist is both sad and hilarious. Ellroy’s subversions aren’t particularly new or unexpected, just adeptly realized. Old pros! They’re good at what they do, be it writing gritty fiction or hitting guys in the kneecaps with baseball bats.
I’m forever in awe of writing that marries rank tawdriness with stylistic precision, and American Tabloid is that to a T*****. Like the best pulp, it’s exploitive, sensationalistic, and angry as fuck. Whatever Americana is, Tabloid is it’s dark reflection. And that’s something we sure as hell could use right now.******
*QUIZ: Which is better—Ellroy’s JFK or Clone High's JFK? Show your work. Now try out your best JFK impression. Come on, we've all got one. This is a safe space.
**Gawd that movie was BOOORING. I could write a whole other post about how dour and humorless Leonardo DiCaprio is in everything and how I wish Clint Eastwood could have persuaded Billy Crudup to reprise his Hoover performance from Public Enemies, which, Jesus Christ, was also BOOOORING. Oh crap, you know who should do a J. Edgar movie?! The Coen Brothers. Like, a combination of A Serious Man and Burn After Reading? Right?! RIGHT?!
***See also: the entire plot of The Long Goodbye, albeit told from a much more sympathetic perspective. Ellroy will bust your balls, but Chandler will break your heart (U R MY BOY 4EVS, RAY).
****”WARRRRD, what are you DOOOOOING?” - a thing I said out lout a lot while reading this book
*****T is for Tiger Kab!
******If I have one criticism of this book, it is that it fails to convince me that anyone would want to be in Miami. Why would anyone want to be in Miami.
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- lugjabask said:Holy shit that Mean Girls comparison makes so much sense.
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