American Tabloid covers a five year period of time leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The novel is over five hundred pages long and contains one hundred chapters. There are five main sections to the book. This book is the first in a three part series called Underworld USA. Although the book does move sequentially, the author also uses flashbacks to a limited degree. The motives of the conspirators are varied. Most are dealing with some sort of personal demon, as well as pressure from others. This book artfully interlaces bits of known history to make the plot more believable.
The motivations of the characters are many. Ultimately it is hatred, revenge and pressure from others within the cabal that prompts their action. Plot Synopsis There is no formal introduction to the book, but there is a short blurb written in italics one page before the first chapter. It is an attempt to prepare the reader for what is to come. It begins, “America was never innocent”. The brief introduction ends with the ominous advice “It’s time to embrace bad men”. The author goes to great lengths to convince the reader that things are not as they seem.
He wants us to look beyond the conventional explanations of what happened to President John F. Kennedy. This first section of the book, entitled “Shakedown”, illustrates the sordid career of one of the main characters named Pete Bondurant. Essentially, Bondurant is an extortionist. He uses prostitutes to lure men into compromising situations. Bondurant is, incidentally, a recurring character in Ellroy’s books. He is an ex-cop with organized crime connections. Bondurant becomes involved in the anti-Castro movement. He is political, but is more so motivated by money. Kemper Boyd and Ward Littell are two rogue FBI agents.
In addition to investigating the Kennedy’s, they have been cultivating the relationship between the Cosa Nostra and elements of the government. Boyd is motivated by money and furthering his own self-image. Littell is a dismissed agent who becomes a lawyer for the mob. The Cuban issue had also motivated Littell to change sides. The Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy, serves as the trigger for the plot. Kennedy is aggressively going after some of the shady characters in the book. In an angry conversation Kennedy lays down the law: I’m going to sever every mafia-CIA tie. I’m going to prohibit organized
crime participation in the Cuban project. I’m going to expel you from the Justice Department and the CIA… (p. 508) Many people, including the mafia and Jimmy Hoffa, were deeply offended by this aggressive stance. They had expected to benefit from a Kennedy presidency. Kennedy had failed on the Cuban issue, angering one group of people. Now he was targeting the people who believed they were responsible for his election. The overlap of these two angry groups, along with a power hungry CIA would be responsible for Kennedy’s demise. The setting of the book changes often, but is spelled out clearly at the beginning of each chapter.
The places involved, including Miami, New Orleans and Chicago are of particular significance for those who already believe in one of several popular conspiracy theories. In part two “Collusion”, Ellroy draws linkages between the CIA and Mafia in the effort to free Cuba. Again, these linkages did exist in reality. The details Ellery provides, however, are fictional. From there, the two organizations become involved in the plot to kill Kennedy. For the mafia, it was a business decision. For the CIA, it was a quest for power. Both shared a resentment of Kennedy. In both organizations there were also rogue elements.
Part three,”Pigs”, outlines the disaster that occurred at the Bay of Pigs. The connections between the various elements of the plot are strengthened and motivated by this event. What motivates these characters? The answers to that question are varied. For some, the goal is simply money. Others, such as the mafia characters, are motivated by hatred and revenge. The governmental agencies involved are engaged in a turf war, always trying to increase their power and influence. Ultimately, the plot is a creation of the Mafia, the CIA and a few rogue individuals. Part four “Heroin” describes the role of drugs in the plot.
Some characters deal drugs, others use them. Both wanted to protect their source of drugs from law enforcement. Individually speaking, the characters are either “bad people” or carry severe personality flaws. Even for these characters, though, the thought of killing a President was not easy. Something else had to be involved. Many are addicts of drugs, alcohol or sex. Their addictions play upon their character flaws, eventually prompting them to action. About his character Littell the author writes: “Three shots tweaked his hatreds. Four shots and up cut those hatreds all the way loose” (p. 357).
Shared anger was their motivation. Substance abuse and pressure from others were the triggers. Finally, in the fifth section “Contract” an agreement to murder is reached among all the parties. At this point, the pressure to commence the plot is intense. Turning back can be fatal. About the Author James Ellroy is the author of several bestsellers in the historical fiction genre. His titles include White Jazz, The Big Nowhere, and The Black Dahlia. Ellroy was born in 1948 in Los Angeles, California. He now resides in Connecticut. Analysis and Conclusion Authors and film makers can have a profound impact on the retelling of history.
Whether or not they are creating fiction does not always matter. The most obvious example can be seen in the Oliver Stone film “JFK”. The film does not stand up to historical scrutiny, but for a generation of Americans it has become the de facto truth about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The same techniques are evident in Ellroy’s book American Tabloid. There are pieces of truth to anchor the readers, making the story that follows more believable. For example, it is widely believed that organized crime was angry with Robert Kennedy for targeting them after they felt they had gotten his brother elected.
Ellroy uses this, creating angry dialogue to convince the reader that retaliation was imminent. For that matter, the author uses most of the conspiracy theories that have arisen over the years. He combines them into a complex, sordid plot. Ellroy’s writing is terse and sometimes vulgar. The paragraphs are short and the dialogue is choppy. Often, a narrative focusing on the personal foibles of a plotter is suddenly interrupted. An “official document” that provides evidence of the plot is presented. The documents are an attempt to convince the reader that the government is also complicit in the plot to kill Kennedy.
Each character has layers of motives. In other words, there are motives that lay ion the surface, and then there are deeper seeded personal motives. Pete Bondurant, for example, is a killer and pimp motivated by money. Looking deeper, however, we see his need to be somebody. He is utterly bored with his life. Boredom can be powerful motivator toward extreme action. The Cuban cause is an exiting relief from the boredom. Bondurant becomes willing to go to great lengths for the cause. The mafia figures, on the surface, are motivated by business concerns. Underneath this lies a strong sense of family loyalty.
In his rise to power Kennedy had, in essence, become part of that family. When the President’s brother turned on the mob, the mob was offended in a deeply personal way. Ward Littell, an ex FBI agent, would appear to be motivated by revenge. However, he too is portrayed by Ellroy as a man in search of excitement. He has always felt underappreciated, ridiculed and lonely. The Cuban issue also prompts him to action. He is a man in search of his own identity. His alcohol problem is evidence of his inner turmoil. In this plot all of the characters are seeking something personal.
The superficial motives are what link them together. Ultimately, none of them escape harm. All of the characters are destroyed in one way or another. Ellroy’s book picks up on, and expands on, many of the dark assassination conspiracies that have arisen over the years. His characters are bad men, a fact which he celebrates at the beginning of the book. They are also complicated men though, whose various motivations and personal foibles result in a groupthink that has disastrous results. Source Ellroy, James. 1995. American Tabloid. New York: Random House.
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