Burning Down the Sixties
James Ellroy Does the LBJ Library
They don't normally let dogs in the LBJ Library and Museum, but after I explained that I was talking about my friend of 12 years, James Ellroy, the demon dog of American literature, they graciously made an exception. Ellroy was in town to promote his astounding new novel, The Cold Six Thousand (Knopf, $25.95). The sequel to American Tabloid, and the middle book in his trilogy about America in the 1960s, The Cold Six Thousand begins in Dallas on November 23, 1963, in the crazy, tilted-universe-swirl of events just after JFK's assassination. Ellroy rips the guts out of the fairy-tale version of 1960s American Camelot over the course of 672 blood-spattered, hate-scorched, speed-tripping pages.
Ellroy's act and his oeuvre are relentlessly hardboiled, but is the man himself? That night at his performance at BookPeople, before 100-plus rabid fans, Ellroy paused in the middle of his usual outrageous rap to wax eloquent on the heroism and brilliance of Martin Luther King Jr. As we chatted during our tour of the LBJ Library, the demon dog confided that he was suffering from promo burnout, missing his wife, dog, and hearth. Still, even in a relatively mellow mood, Ellroy bopped seamlessly between riffs on Sixties mobsters and 16th-century theologians without breaking a sweat.
The first thing you encounter as you stroll into the LBJ Library is a glass wall case containing heavyweight champ George Foreman's red satin robe -- not the first thing you'd expect to see here.
James Ellroy: Boxing is the only sport I care about. I'm a fanatical fan of boxing. I've been on the road a long time, though, and I've missed a lot of good fights.
Austin Chronicle: I went to the Jesus Chavez fight here with Jan Reid. You know, the writer who got shot in Mexico?
JE: Yeah, is he OK now?
AC: He's OK. He walks with a cane. He has some problems, yeah, but at least he got a good book out of it ...
JE: See, Jesse, I'm a different guy. I'd never place myself in the slightest danger. I just figure everything I need for a book or magazine piece -- it's right up here [points to head]. I'm not interested in having experiences. ... There's LBJ.
AC: You know, I'm a huge fan of LBJ. He was totally amazing. He did so many great things -- for the country and for Texas. His legacy is everywhere.
JE: He did some bad things, too. His entitlement programs, for which we're gonna pay and pay and pay and pay. He got a lot of people hopped up thinking that economic democracy is something that's owed them.
AC: Well, I just think he was so smart that he could have seen some of these problems, if he was still in power, and fixed it, adjusted it. I think he was smart enough to do that. But who knows?
JE: I saw the four-hour PBS documentary on him. It was tremendous, he was tremendous ...
AC: I went to his funeral ...
JE: Look, he's no more than 42, 43 years old in this picture, and he looks like an old man already. But men had that gravity back then. And they all wore suits.
AC: Wouldn't that be cool? Think about it. You know, it was your uniform. You never had to worry about what you were going to wear the next day. Blue suit, black suit, splash tie, that's all there was to it.
[Here we come to the Cuban Missile Crisis exhibit. The Chet Huntley news report is on television, in solemn black and white: "Destroyers and navy picket ships are cruising through the Florida Straits not far from Miami. ... Jet fighters are lined up and ready to scramble ..."]
JE: There's Pierre [Salinger, JFK's press secretary] ...
AC: Yeah, that's after he ran out and scrounged all the Cuban cigars in D.C. for Jack.
JE: [laughs] Yeah ... [As JFK addresses the nation: "Good evening, my fellow citizens ..."] I remember watching this. See, I'm six years older than you, Jesse. I remember.
AC: Were you scared? Excited?
JE: Oh yeah, I was excited. I thought the world was gonna end and I wouldn't have to go to school.
[at the Berlin exhibit]
JE: There's the Berlin wall.
AC: They sell chunks of it here in the souvenir shop.
JE: Really? Wow.
AC: Yeah, $5.95 for a chunk of the Berlin wall.
[We pause to take in a Martin Luther King Jr. exhibit.]
JE: I'm a big fan of Martin Luther King Jr. I've read a lot about him. He read all the Martin Fender books, too. [laughs]
[We stand and admire our reflections in the bulletproof windows of LBJ's black Lincoln limousine, which is parked in the middle of the library's main floor.]
JE: Wow. Cool.
AC: When we used to see him in Johnson City, he was in the white slab side Lincoln.
JE: He used to bomb around in a white Cadillac, didn't he? A ragtop.
AC: Yeah. And the white slab side Lincoln. OK, let's go. Vietnam is over there, but we can see that later.
JE: [as we pass a job corps program exhibit] I got a job from LBJ. I got out of the army in '65, there was a neighborhood youth corps. I was shelving books in a library for a buck and a quarter an hour, four hours a day.
AC: See where it got you?
[We arrive at my favorite part of the museum -- the humor exhibit. Inside a bus stop looking booth, an LBJ robot, wearing a cowboy shirt and standing behind a split rail fence, tells jokes, moving in not-quite-lifelike gestures. It's spooky fun. The jokes are good, if a little anachronistic.
The LBJ robot: "... So the doctor says, 'Didn't I tell you when you were here that you've gotta cut out your drinking if you want to improve your hearing?' He said, 'Yes.' Well, why didn't you do it? He said, 'Well, Doctor, when I got home I considered it, and I decided that I liked what I drank so much more than what I heard.'"
There follows a joke about a teacher applying for a job in Johnson City during the Depression, and Winston Churchill during wartime. The whole thing seems a little too cornpone for Ellroy. We stop at a bench in front of the presidential gifts display cases.]
JE: Let's sit down here and talk for a while.
AC: OK. Have you been to Dealey Plaza?
JE: I've been to Dealey Plaza several times. I went there for the first time for American Tabloid. I went there, looked around, saw that it was smaller than life. Went out to Oak Cliff, where the Oswald-Tippett tiff occurred. And I saw the spot where Jack Ruby's Carousel Club stood on. It's right down from the Adolphus Hotel, and I stayed at the Adolphus Hotel, which is the site of The Cold Six Thousand and American Tabloid. Then, for The Cold Six Thousand I went to West Las Vegas, that horrible black ghetto, and looked around. It's the worst ghetto I've ever seen.
AC: Yeah, that's interesting. You really don't normally think of ghettos when you think of Las Vegas.
JE: Yeah. It's tremendous. But that was it, aside from the research I gathered and I read it all, and just put myself in the minds of the characters and decided to tell the story in the most blunt, coarse, vulgar, direct, repulsive language I knew how. And there are a lot of critics and reviewers who hate this book and there's roughly an equal number who love it, who get it. You know? Who wants to write books that would be magnanimously praised?
AC: Oh yeah, if everybody likes something, then there's something seriously wrong. You don't think LBJ was involved in the Kennedy conspiracy, do you?
AC: What do you think of Oliver Stone's JFK? Where he has LBJ saying to the army generals, "You get me in the White House, gentlemen, I'll give you your damn war."
JE: That movie is electrifying for the first 45 minutes because it hints at Cuba. It never hints at the mob, and it's too bad, because it is the mob. You know, it's the mob-renegades-CIA-crazy-Cuban-exiles nexus, and anything else is horse shit. I would believe the single-gunman theory before I would believe the military-industrial complex theory. It's preposterous. "Gentlemen, I'll give you your damn war." Ha! War this! [points to his crotch]
AC: Since you're sort of destroying the myths about the Sixties, what do you think about Bush saying the Sixties was a big mistake, a lot of immoral excess, and that sort of thing?
JE: Well, history happens because it happens. You can't separate the today from the then, the then from the now, and it all had to happen. What the Sixties ushered in was public accountability. What's preposterous about the Sixties is the bit about America being innocent prior to Jack's getting it. That certainly isn't true. But the Vietnam War engendered mass skepticism in this country and ushered in public accountability. Bad guys can't get away with what they used to. And that's all for the good.
AC: I noticed you put a lot of yourself in the character Wayne Junior. There are some significant riffs about yourself in his character and then you really put him through the meat grinder.
JE: Wayne Tedrow Junior's transit into racism is horrible. I wanted to show the anatomy of racial hatred. I wanted to show the extent to which in his case it was motivated by tremendous grief. And of course, it's this misguided act of mercy on Wendel Durfee that fuels the entire book, and serves as the motor for his racism. He's the classic outsider who dates back to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. He's surrounded by more active and volatile people and Pete Bondurant especially, and Ward Littell, and he is the younger guy seeking to get into trouble, unconsciously, of course, as the others are seeking to get out.
AC: You know, before now, I was thinking that Ward Littell's hatred was the most interestingly twisted species in the book.
JE: Oh, yeah, because he loves high-level games, but he's doomed by his own hubris and his fumbling sense of justice. He keeps getting those that he loves killed, be they presidents, civil rights leaders, women. And he thinks he works for J. Edgar Hoover and still funds the civil rights movement? He's crazy!
AC: One of your big themes in The Cold Six Thousand is that JFK brought the assassination on himself for allowing the mob to help get him elected, then allowing his brother, as attorney general, to go after the mob, and they felt betrayed. Do you think that in a way, Vietnam might have been sort of LBJ's hubris, for things that he might have done?
JE: Yeah, I do. J. Edgar Hoover ruminates in The Cold Six Thousand that LBJ will deplete his prestige on the home front and recoup it in Vietnam. When, of course, the opposite was true.
AC: Tell me something about the 1920s novel you're planning to write after this trilogy.
JE: I'm going to write a novel about Warren Harding's presidency. And with that, you know as much as I do.
AC: Will it be less violent?
AC: Why is it easier to believe stories about corruption in eras in the past, than it is in the present? I guess since Vietnam, Watergate, it's easier, but --
JE: Anything is possible. If you believe the construct that there are satellite characters like Bondurant, Littell, Tedrow, attending American history, then this narrative is totally plausible. What people don't realize about this book is that there were people like that and that American public policy in the 1960s -- that last gasp of pre-public accountability America -- was a big, horrible gasp of unreconstructed violence and hatred. Yeah.
AC: That makes sense. Do you want to go upstairs and see the Gutenberg Bible and stuff?
JE: Nah, I don't give a shit about that.