Agonizing Anticipation

“He braced himself for this big fucking scream.”

ellroy.jpgThat’s the final sentence of James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, the first book in the “Underwold USA” trilogy that concluded with the release of Blood’s a Rover last week. It’s hard to believe that more than 14 years passed between these novels, because the memory of reading that line the first time feels a lot fresher than 1995. It’s nearly seared into my brain.

It’s easy to dismiss Ellroy for being lurid, coarse, and florid in his subjects and in his rhythmic, peculiarly pretty shards-of-glass prose, and for being an egomaniacal braggart in interviews. (I think it’s an act, but that makes it only more annoying.) It’s understandable to want a reprieve from his characters’ black souls and the incessant violence, sex, and drugs. And it’s only human to wish the guy some peace, even as each novel continues to reflect a man tortured by the personal history detailed in My Dark Places, about the murder of his mother.

Yet all that is essential Ellroy and given, and focusing on those things means we ignore his larger brilliance: how his style simultaneously beats and hypnotizes the reader into trance-like immersion; how that submission to the author forces the reader to accept the (frequently) ridiculous, and makes his alternative history more than plausible; and how he quietly manages a story underneath all that complicated verbal jazz, with chaotic, wide-ranging narratives converging beautifully, naturally, and correctly.

American Tabloid’s closing sentence hints at all of that. By itself, it’s an unremarkable collection of words, but it carries an almost agonizing anticipation. The whole novel has been building to this event — the book concludes in 1963, by the way — and in the final rush of pages, the reader wonders how it’s going to go down.

And Ellroy, with what only seems like uncharacteristic restraint, pulls up just short, and leaves us on the sidelines, and lets it hang. There is a horror here, not in seeing, but in knowing what’s about to happen. It’s a great ending, and I smile every time I think about it.

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