Many writers adopt a public persona. Hemingway’s was that of a macho sportsman. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s was that of a burn-out failure. Today, mystery writer James Ellroy’s is that of a guttural, right-wing loon.
With a few exceptions, the literary establishment has seconded this interpretation, pointing to his public support of Fox News commentator Bill O’ Reilly and his pining for Ronald Reagan to counter Obama’s representation of the “cancerous face of socialism.”
However, if his fiction reflects his thoughts, until recently, he has had a much more complex treatment of communist characters that has at times mirrored the Cold War left.
A belief among the Left that began with and has outlasted the Cold War was that the American government waged it for either importing fascism or making a profit, or both. A necessary part of either thesis is the ineffectuality of domestic communists.
The Big Nowhere deals with a serial murderer of party members. Although the murders are to some extent covered up by other party members, they also attempt to apprehend the killer. The motives of party members in the story may stem from anger or spite (the leader of the party members, Claire De Haven, hated her Republican father), but the implication from Ellroy is that the end results are good. De Haven aids the party-backed union against a violent mob-dominated one.
If the motives of party members are somewhat neurotic, they at least have the saving grace of aiding victims. The same cannot be said of Ellroy’s anti-communists. The most passionate of them is merely seeking to deflect the investigation of Hollywood reds from uncovering a murder he committed a decade before. The rest are in it for the money or, as Ellroy puts it, to get on the “Red Scare gravy train.” A member of the District Attorney’s office uses anti-communism to ascend the career ladder, while a bagman for Howard Hughes characterizes investigating reds a “waste of time” and merely “good for business.”
The Big Nowhere describes an establishment that is not so much military-industrial as a “police-industrial” one. The police are capitalists who make their money and careers by blackjacking leftists who merely cover their bodies with no camera in sight or witnesses.
By American Tabloid, the “secret history” of the JFK administration, Ellroy has broadened his cast of villains to include the military industrial complex. In the introduction, Ellroy prepares the reader for a critical examination of the Camelot administration, but the anger is almost exclusively directed at Kennedy’s opposition. Jack and Bobby play hardball politics, but they know nothing, as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has desperately asserted throughout the years, about the CIA’s use of the mob to assassinate Castro. Indeed, it is Bobby’s attempt to sever the agency’s ties to the Mafia, along with JFK’s willingness to establish better relations with Castro, that gets the brothers killed.
By now, Ellroy’s party members are beyond ineffectual; they are merely blinking victims whose only ideological gestures are distributing doughnuts to striking workers. One does work on a scandal rag by day to finance his damaging data-collecting on Richard Nixon, but he is quickly and easily killed early in the novel.
Ellroy does have a fellow traveler of sorts in the novel, but he is hardly a realistic figure. Agent Ward Littell, sickened by his FBI duties harassing domestic communists and eager to battle America’s real menace, the Mafia, joins the Camelot crusade. Like De Haven, Ellroy’s Kennedys may have anger as motive (JFK characterizes Bobby as a self-righteous hater during pillow talk with a mistress), but the end result, shifting the government’s focus away from helpless Reds to all-powerful mobsters, justifies the means. Littell is ultimately disillusioned by the Kennedy brothers but not through any behavior on their part; it is the discovery that their father has mob ties. Real life members of the administration, however, have never given up defending it. If Ward Littell really existed, he would today appear on Larry King, flanked by Richard Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger, all chanting about how JFK couldn’t stomach assassination plots against Castro and was withdrawing us from Vietnam.
It is a shame that Ellroy had presented so edited a version of the Cold War, for including leftist and liberal behavior during the conflict is truly the stuff of noir. Imagine a writer dealing with a New Deal official scurrying from his office at night with government documents to his Woodstock typewriter or a rendezvous with a Soviet contact. Or a writer dealing with JFK turning off the White House tape recorder to discuss with Bobby or Richard Bissell the real life plans for the December 1963 Cuban invasion. Or one dealing with the possibility that Castro through the Cuban embassy offered Lee Harvey Oswald asylum if he fired his Manlicher for the revolution. Such scenes have yet to be written by mystery writers. If Ellroy would extend his advertised political incorrectness to the Cold War rather than just recording racist and sexist dialogue, then readers would truly be in an interesting and shadowy world.
There is evidence that Ellroy may be heading in that direction. His latest novel, Perfidia, shows Ellroy transcending dated and discredited arguments about communists in the early Cold War era.
As a plot device, he uses the off-quoted libertarian assertion that “the far left and the far right meet in a circle.”
The bent cops who lurk in the background of this novel set in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor subscribe to the far right doctrine of eugenics. But so do the far leftists in the novel. The main difference between the two is not who they want to operate on — but in their intent. The rightists want to surgically alter Japanese into Chinese, as part of a money-laundering scheme to profit from their government-seized property. They also subscribe to Nazi beliefs — not one of them supports the American fight against Hitler — blaming the current war on Jews high up in the American government to protect their world-wide control. Thus they sympathize with Hitler’s eugenic intent.
But the far left supports eugenics, as well. They join forces with the bent cops and their house surgeon, Terry Lux, in order to build a better worker. Hence, the far left and the far right do meet in a circle.
If Ellroy continues in this direction, we may actually have a writer who now embraces what communists were really like.