Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Marc Savlov, Fri., May 18, 2001
The Cold Six ThousandA Novel
by James Ellroy
Knopf, 711 pp., $26.95
James Ellroy looks like he writes: He looks hard. Razor thin. His moustache is terse. His eyes seethe. Red-rimmed pits. Cheap glasses. (Not too cheap.) His books: The L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz) scored high. Hollywood nailed L.A. Con. He scored higher. His mother's rape death fueled a bio-horror-show. My Dark Places blew minds. American Tabloid was a slo-mo Sixties wipeout. Bad guys -- worse cops. L.A. by way of Dante. One-way ticket to nowheresville. Really. Short. Sentences.
It's impossible to mistake the garrote-tight prose of this self-proclaimed "demon dog of American fiction" for the sudden-seeming verbiage of any other writer. From the beginning, with Brown's Requiem and later with his fictionalized take on Hollywood's greatest, unsolved bifurcated-torso-slaying in The Black Dahlia, he has been less a writer of neo-noir crime fiction ("NeNo CriFi," I suppose, to his die-hards) than a force of nature, stringing together words into barbed-wire lariats which he then uses to choke the bejeezus out of you. He's a direct descendant of Dashiell Hammett, Ross McDonald, and Jack Webb, distilling that dark-noir trio into something particularly electrifying. His novels are all muscle, zero fat, lean, mean, and verbally spastic.
Clocking in at over 700 pages, The Cold Six Thousand is a big, fat bludgeon of a book, not that that means anything other than he's got a lot to say. If you thought the opening of this review was a bitch to wade through, then imagine 700-plus pages of three-to-five word sentences strung together page after page, unbroken but for the occasionally lengthier bit of dialogue.
It opens on the day JFK is killed, with Vegas cop Wayne Tedrow arriving in Dallas on orders to kill a black pimp who may or may not have something to do with the president's murder. Two characters from the Ellroy canon reappear as well: psycho killer and rabid anti-pinko Pete Bondurant and mob lawyer Ward Littell. Ellroy, never one to leave the scaly white underbelly of American anti-history unprobed, also brings in no less than J. Edgar Hoover as a major character, as well as millionaire freakshow Howard Hughes and a host of lesser devils, all of who conspire to make the falsely idealistic Tedrow's life a barely livable hell. It's part road tale, part angry white guy revisionism, and all bad juju. This book demands you take a scalding shower after every reading.
Although Ellroy moves things forward at a furious pace (eventually we're in Vietnam, running both heroin and scared), the tight little rhythm feels like literary dog paddling. At points it saps your strength as a reader: The Cold Six Thousand isn't a one-sitting book. It's not even a five-sitting book. I'm not even sure it's a book at all, actually, because all those jarring little sentences elicit an emotive response that's more akin to the staccato pistoning of a great, loping techno track or, more likely, the four-on-the-floor pounding of a shoot-to-thrill Ramones bopper.
Take this description of Dallas' Carousel Club, for example: "Cops clapped. Cops whooped. Cops ruled the room. The club was closed to the public. The owner loved Jackie. The owner loved JFK. Let's mourn. Let's ride out this tsuris. Let's show some respect. You badged in. The owner loved cops. Your host -- Jack Ruby."
Tighter prose is virtually inconceivable, and although Ellroy's epic scope at times seems to wander gutshot through some Great American Wasteland of the soul, he manages to finesse the bloody-soaked sprawl into a coherent, ultimately gorgeous and electrifying mess.
Americana gone haywire, Norman Rockwell playing Jack Webb on bennies, call it what you will -- it's a mammoth, adrenalized chunk of writing not just hopeless but hopelessly fun.
James Ellroy will be at BookPeople on Wednesday, May 23, at 7pm.