Blood's a Rover

You don't get a lot of commas in a James Ellroy book. Ellroy's sentences are simple, declarative, and usually brutal: "Wayne scared him. Wayne didn't scare the other guys. Froggy defied Wayne. Froggy said they could keep the dope biz clandestine . . . Wayne was scary because he processed evil shit and fed it back to you . . ."

Blood's a Rover is the third book in Ellroy's Underworld US trilogy, which aims to uncover the secret, criminal histories - the "evil shit" - of American political life. We are in the years 1968-72, and our main characters are the FBI man Dwight Holly; the ex-cop Wayne Tedrow, who now works for Howard Hughes and the Mafia, and was revealed as the "real" killer of Martin Luther King in the previous instalment (there are no lone assassins in Ellroy's world); and Don Crutchfield, whose passion for voyeurism gives his job description of private eye a whole new resonance. Along the way we are treated to conspiracies, murders, armed robberies, extortion, blackmail, prostitution, sex films, race hate, drug runs and all-round general goonishness in the streets, hotels, nightclubs, bedrooms and carnivals of Los Angeles, Las Vegas, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

The trilogy's technique is to collide brutal procedural prose with familiar historical events, but whereas the earlier books focused on single public moments - the assassination of John F Kennedy in American Tabloid, those of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in The Cold Six Thousand - here the central objects are a stash of stolen emeralds and the eroto-political pursuit of a dark woman of the revolution, which gives the book a more poignant feel.

As in all the best pulp fiction, Ellroy's characters are driven by a single obsession or perversion. Often they are motherless men in lust with mysterious women old enough to be their mothers. In softer moments, they might brew up concoctions of narcotics in order to re-cohere, or "de-schiz", and sometimes to chase after revelation. Meanwhile they paint the scenery red with their bullets in a world where every location, no matter how exotic or ordinary, is "nothing but coups, revolts, plots, intrigue, slaughter". Ellroy is writing about the Dominican Republic here, but that's a fair description of every region of his world.

Ellroy has written memoir before, and done it well (My Dark Places), but his fictions now increasingly read like a series of self-portraits. Crutchfield aka "Dipshit" aka "Peeper" aka Pariguayo ("party-watcher") is the juvenile lead here, and his is the story of geekery trium­phant. I don't usually approve of reading text as a symptom or reflection of its author, but in Crutchfield's lonerness, his mother fixation, in the mountains of paper he accumulates as he obsessively follows official and unofficial trails, the author is presenting himself.

Whether what any of the characters, or their author, is working on happens to be true or not becomes rather irrelevant. We read Ellroy for the relentless force of his voice and energies, not because we believe that every murderous American instrument of the second half of the 20th century had J Edgar Hoover's fingerprints on it. Similarly, the gossip he throws at us -

Charlton Heston snitched potheads. Sal Mineo snitched rump rascals wholesale . . . The Duke's [John Wayne's] a cross-dresser
. . . He wears a size 56 extra-long muumuu . . .
Natalie [Wood] was a show lez. She
muff-munched at Hollywood parties . . .

-is gloriously scurrilous and entertaining. It doesn't need to be true.

Ellroy makes the reader a promise at the beginning: "This book derives from stolen public files and usurped private journals . . . Scripture-pure veracity and scandal-rag content . . . You will read with some reluctance and capitulate in the end." It is hard not to succumb to such bullying authorial bravado.

David Flusfeder's most recent novel is "The Pagan House" (Harper Perennial, £7.99)

Blood's a Rover
James Ellroy
Century, 662pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide