A Red with an FBI Badge

On reactionary novelist James Ellroy and his Underworld USA trilogy’s surprising treatment of communism and anticommunism.

Illustration by Anton Weflö

It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time. Here’s to them.

So James Ellroy intones at the end of a soliloquy opening American Tabloid, the first volume in the Underworld USA trilogy. The bad men he hugs close include the Mafia, J. Edgar Hoover, assorted politicos, and tycoons like Howard Hughes. The novels illuminate a conspiratorial hidden history of the United States from just before the Cuban Revolution in 1959 to the Watergate break-ins in 1972, told across two thousand pages in Ellroy’s signature style: strings of tight, telegraphic phrases interspersed with police-report exposition and Grand-Guignol violence. The style — experimented with in his earlier work, but perfected in Underworld USA and his first memoir, My Dark Places — is innovative enough to be worth the price of admission for anyone who values literary invention.

Anticommunism — as an ethos and a way of life, more than as an idea — drives the action of the books. Ellroy’s performance as a public figure over the years has sometimes verged on talk-radio-style right-wing ranting, and his fiction is at times calculating in its violation of liberal sensitivities through racial stereotyping.

Yet readers who picked up the Underworld trilogy as the novels appeared between 1995 and 2009 found themselves — after nearly two thousand pages, and in the wake of more bloodshed perpetrated by assorted “bad men” later than anyone would want to remember — reading the elegy for an elusive American Communist femme fatale that ends Blood’s a Rover, the final volume.

This is a major transition: the consequence of a rigorous pursuit of knowledge of one’s self and of one’s world, as undertaken by a strange, conflicted, highly talented man. In City of Quartz, Mike Davis wrote of Ellroy that “in his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows and evil becomes a forensic banality.” There is a grain of truth in Davis’s criticism, even if his subsequent characterization of Ellroy as “a neo-Nazi in American writing” goes overboard. But Ellroy is canny and honest enough with his darkness — and willing to allow in the light of historical inquiry, if not of morality — to be able to say something important.

“Geography is destiny,” Ellroy occasionally likes to proclaim in his public appearances and interviews, an interesting position for a man who has also claimed to have never looked at an atlas until middle age, when his second wife bought him one. But it rings true. He has a nose for the geography of power. The power structure that the characters work for is an array of fiefdoms, a “democratic feudalism,” to use Corey Robin’s term, that makes the Holy Roman Empire look sane by comparison. Ellroy’s America is Charles Portis’ “pelagic America,” the land-sea at the heart of North America where the odds and ends of Europe, with the help of a little capital and a lot of forced labor, could make society in its own image. In Underworld USA, this is a welter of parochial mini-worlds, governed by sleazy thugs and stitched together by a skein of national institutions. (Ellroy and Portis, whether they want to or not, definitively rebuke Burke’s vision of small “organic” communities.) This is the nexus between the Mafia and the corporate world that takes the people’s money, the police forces headed by Hoover’s FBI that monitors them, and mass entertainment that keeps them pacified and spending.

These forces also drive pelagic Americans into the cities, where their various hatreds rub up against each other. Underworld USA lingers on Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Miami, cities where the management of arriviste rural Americans through violence, segregation, bread, and circuses was turned into an art. Like Ellroy’s parents, most of his viewpoint characters are middle Americans who came to cities. Dwight Holly, Wayne Tedrow, and Kemper Boyd are the sons of pelagic nobility (Indiana Klansmen, Nevada Mormons, and Tennessee aristocrats, respectively — and Ellroy himself might be the last American to actually give a damn about being of WASP descent, as opposed to a generic whiteness). Pete Bondurant comes to Los Angeles from perhaps the most isolated part of prewar North America: rural Quebec. Perhaps because of this, Bondurant, the terrifying animating force of the first two books, is clearest on what anticommunism is about: “anticommunism is good for business.” J. Edgar Hoover, overseeing the whole thing like a terrifying cross between Gollum and Sauron, is a good small-town Indiana boy himself. The Mob figures, though Italian and Jewish, speak the same language of big money and small, personal domination as do the Mormon bigwigs with whom they hobnob in Las Vegas. The only figures in the book that don’t — Bobby Kennedy (Jack could fake the same noblesse), the blue-blooded CIA men, French mercenaries, and towards the end, a cabal of those rare birds, effective American communists — give off a faint otherworldly aura.

This, then, is the “Free World.” The actions taken to uphold it fall under the rubric of anticommunism. “Anticommunism makes strange bedfellows,” J. Edgar Hoover says early in American Tabloid, and it’s the consequences of these strange couplings that drive the action in the books. Anticommunism in Underworld USA isn’t a matter of ideology or geopolitics. White American leftists (for the most part — more on this below) figure as harmless and well-meaning; Soviets don’t figure at all. Anticommunism is about keeping the suckers fat, ignorant, and happy, and their masters — those at the nexus of organized crime, politics, and the corporate world — secure.

Some communists, like the Cubans, threaten the system directly by cutting off Mafia and United Fruit profits. That said, most forces targeted by the anticommunist strange bedfellows — the civil rights movement, student radicals, those liberals who believe enough to get in the way — threaten the system not monetarily but ontologically: by attempting to make it kinder, gentler, less ignorant. They would disrupt the existence epitomized by the brilliantly nauseating scenes Ellroy depicts of Teamsters and those other parts of the working class favored by military Keynesianism enjoying their idea of paradise: all slot machines, cigars, booze, and prostitutes, with cheap lounge acts affirming — over and over again in leering, unsubtle terms — the white working man’s whiteness and masculinity. Racism, sexism, violence, sleaze, and chintz are not by-products of the system: they are the system, they are what make it worthwhile. They are what bound pelagic America into a superpower; the New Deal, the Atlantic Charter, and Fordism are incidental, or necessary but banal, conditions of existence.

Most of the protagonists in Underworld USA affect a superiority to the system they protect. The masses enjoying the show are dismissed as “geeks,” and most of the masters — gauche Sam Giancana, insane Howard Hughes, closeted voyeur Hoover — are depicted as little better. Partial though they are to posh hotel suites and drugs, Ellroy’s heroes aren’t in it for the money. The terror they wreak is its own end, as crucial to their sense of self as the vile and open racism of their society is to that society’s functioning. Pete Bondurant is constantly violently putting things in order: tabloid magazines, paramilitary camps, taxi-services-cum-crime-rings. This order consists of keeping races and genders separate, unequal, but functioning together, typically to make money via blackmail and violence. Bondurant is personally invested in this order, and the way in which his systems need the disorderly — black people and “geeks,” Cubans who just can’t seem to run a cab stand properly, the list goes on — to function seems to rub his always-tender temper raw. Still, only geeks (like the Klansmen everyone holds their noses and works with) suggest eliminationist solutions. The system needs to be maintained, not overturned. The system’s violence needs to be applied to the nonviolent so that the capacity and will to use violence remains intact. It’s circular, but if conservatism has one truth, it’s that the circular exists and sometimes we need to cope with it. Rarely, one of Ellroy’s tough guys can opt out, when they meet the right woman and the violence gets a tad much for them, but the world can no more opt out of systemic violence than it could opt out of gravity.

Ellroy once criticized Raymond Chandler by saying that Chandler wrote the man he wished he was, where Dashiell Hammett — a Pinkerton thug-turned-Communist Party member — wrote the man he feared he was in fact. Turned back on its originator, that criticism works well in evaluating Ellroy’s characters. Stone killer Pete Bondurant, sly charmer Kemper Boyd, lantern-jawed enforcer Lyle Holly are all good characters that move the action along, the sorts of men Ellroy would have liked to be. Don Crutchfield is a more honest character, closely reflecting Ellroy himself: an LA kid with a missing mom and a wino dad, spurned by nice girls and hippie girls alike, scared, resentful, obsessive. From there, the progression from peeping tom to cop groupie to junior private snoop to right-wing thug-in-training seems wholly natural. Crutchfield, before getting in with president killers and coup plotters, seems to be drawn from Ellroy’ own experience; his mother was murdered (a case still unsolved) when he was a child and he, too, snooped and perved his way around 1960s Los Angeles. Crutchfield is the opening for Ellroy’s real-life vulnerabilities to come through into his written work.

Womankind exists at the center of Ellroy’s universe of men. Ellroy has called himself a romantic, seemingly meaning a mash-up of two senses of the word: philosophical romanticism, with its disavowal of formal rationality, and romantic love as thought of by twentieth-century Americans. By using romantic love as a deus ex machina, redeeming racist thugs with body counts in the triple digits, Ellroy is both copping out and being entirely true to himself and his philosophy; his goals are not ours. Those viewpoint characters who do not acquire a true female love die violently and without any real redemption. The love of a good woman allows a few characters to get away from the violence altogether, and some to die in a state of grace.

As it turns out, a particular kind of love does most of the redeeming in Blood’s a Rover, the last and most compelling of the trilogy: the love of leftist women. The plot of Blood’s a Rover is a fascinating fractal complex mess, as complicated as the rest of the trilogy put together, but at the center lies the sort of Red conspiracy that might have justified some of the anticommunist violence that motivated the action in the rest of the book. However, it’s clear Ellroy admires these communists, and so, eventually, do his characters.

At the center of the action is a confederacy of femme fatales led by the enigmatic Joan Rosen Klein, and Jack Leahy, a red-diaper baby who wormed his way into the FBI directly under Hoover’s nose. Jack’s father “was a Red with an FBI badge. He was grooming Jack to become a cop revolutionary.” Both Jack and Joan are veterans of an endless struggle, and have acquired the scars and gravitas to distinguish themselves from the callow liberals Ellroy complains about in fiction and in interviews. Joan and other left-leaning female figures are the engines of most of the redemption the series has to offer. Love for Joan makes Dwight Holly turn on Hoover, love for a black woman makes Wayne Tedrow into an anti-imperialist guerrilla. Don Crutchfield, the character closest to the author, delivers his elegy decades after the events in the trilogy, when he is a successful private detective, but still searching for the elusive Joan (as Ellroy searched for his mother in My Dark Places). Ellroy famously disbelieves in closure. Joan doesn’t bring closure, but strong women bring redemption throughout Ellroy’s work — in Crutchfield’s case, the pursuit of her, rather than her actual presence.

It would be a mistake to make more out of this than it is. Romantic love and violence burnout as ethical answers to the world is obviously insufficient, though if such forces can turn right-wing thugs the way Ellroy seems to think they can, more power to them. The closest Ellroy has come to a real statement of political intent is his self-description as a “Tory mystic.” Elsewhere he has described himself as a mixture of Marxist and conservative. What these have in common is a rejection of liberalism and the bourgeoisie, for better and for worse. This is in keeping with Ellroy’s love of shock (and schlock) and his deeply pessimistic worldview. He’s been at it again recently as his next book nears print, ranting against Obama, hipsters, “rock-and-rollers” (the man is aging) and making much of his Tory leanings.

Some of this elicits yawns and some of it chuckles, but unlike other right-left straddling provocateurs (Christopher Hitchens comes to mind), Ellroy’s work continues to impress and improve, both in terms of his craft and in terms of clarity and humanity of vision. Compare Underworld USA with the earlier works in the LA Quartet (most famous for LA Confidential). While good reads, the novels that comprise the quartet — The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, LA Confidential, and White Jazz — were much more conventional works. Ellroy engaged in significant historical research for these novels — his 1950s Los Angeles feels gruesomely real — but he did not surrender himself to it as fully as he did later on. Or perhaps the history of LA simply brought out something different in him than did the history of the United States.

In the LA Quartet, leftists are pathetic, not worth anyone’s time — neither that of the perpetrators of the Red Scare or of those the leftists would purportedly help. In fact, there’s even a leftist femme fatale in The Big Nowhere, but she’s the opposite of Joan — a fake leftist, a rich girl playing Red and seeking authenticity by sleeping with Mexican men, a spiteful caricature in a series full of them, but more memorable for the seemingly deeply-felt resentment behind it:

The woman hated her father, screwed Mexicans to earn his wrath, had a crush on her father and got her white lefty consorts to dress stuffed-shirt traditional like him — so she could tear off their clothes and make a game of humiliating paternal surrogates. She hated her father’s money and political connections, raped his bank accounts to lavish gifts on men whose politics the old man despised; she went to tether’s end on booze, opiates and sex, found causes to do penance with and fashioned herself into an exemplary leftist Joan of Arc: organizing, planning, recruiting, financing with her own money and donations often secured from her own body.

All the same, this represents a step up for Ellroy from his real right-wing kook days (he was a supporter of the American Nazi Party at one point in his youth, according to his memoirs), but was still well within right-wing tough-guy shock jock territory. Glimmers of the writer he would become exist in the LA Quartet, but he was not there yet.

This development shows in Ellroy’s public persona, as well. He doesn’t gadfly as much as he once did; he’s toned down both his love for throwing around vile racist and sexist epithets and the ain’t-I-a-stinker justifications for doing so. His obsessive stalker quality can still make one’s skin crawl, but turned towards historical inquiry, it drove him to some actual truths: his understanding of what made anticommunism has truth to it that other (nicer, more formally educated) people would — and have, and do — miss.

The study of history made him a better writer and (somewhat) less of a troll in the bargain. Ignorant self-love was a key support for the white man’s hell-paradise seen in Underworld USA. Ellroy kicked out the prop of ignorance from his own persona in order to rhapsodize that world, and in so doing changed his perspective, and has followed that change to some fruitful and logical conclusions. That’s a decent first step for anyone.