It may surprise some of you that James Ellroy’s American Tabloid is one of my all-time favorite novels. After all, it’s not a frontier tale… except, it kinda is.
Allow me to explain.
For starters, the era it covers — the late 1950s up to November 22, 1963 — was an era obsessed with the frontier. Every kid of the era had a coonskin cap and knew the words to Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier by heart. America understood itself through the mythology of the Western. Not for nothing did John F. Kennedy evoke a “New Frontier” in his 1960 speech accepting the Democratic Party nomination as its candidate for the presidency:
“For I stand tonight facing west on what was once the last frontier.
“From the lands that stretch three thousand miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West. They were not the captives of their own doubts, the prisoners of their own price tags. Their motto was not ‘every man for himself’ — but ‘all for the common cause.’ They were determined to make that new world strong and free, to overcome its hazards and its hardships, to conquer the enemies that threatened from without and within.
“Today some would say that those struggles are all over — that all the horizons have been explored — that all the battles have been won — that there is no longer an American frontier.
“But I trust that no one in this vast assemblage will agree with those sentiments. For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won–and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier — the frontier of the 1960’s–a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats.”
Ellroy peels the paint off the New Frontier (and Camelot), knowing that it was the same as the old frontier — and had a weird, wild, dark side.
Any explorer of borderlands history knows in his bones the truth contained in Ellroy’s legendary and oft-quoted opening to AT:
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.
Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.
The real Trinity of Camelot was Look Good, Kick Ass, Get Laid. Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab.
Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.
They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it.
It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here’s to them.
Ellroy’s beat is urban — the dazzling dark sunshine of LA and Cuban-exile-Miami, nightclubs and diners, precinct stations — but some of his rough men could have easily ridden in a previous era with John Joel Glanton’s gang of scalphunters in Northern Mexico (AT’s bagman and CIA asset Pete Bondurant actually goes on scalping raids in Cuba). Las Vegas, Nevada, c. 1958 isn’t really much different from Tombstone, Arizona, c. 1881.
And Miami was — and would remain through its Cocaine Cowboys era — a frontier boom town on steroids.
So… you can imagine my delight when I checked in on Christopher Othen’s blog and found this:
The Covid lockdown has some advantages. Despite the masks and cruising police cars it’s given me more time to work on my next book. The Men from Miami is about the American misfits, gangsters, and anti-communists who fought for Fidel Castro’s rebels in Cuba … then changed their minds and tried to overthrow him when the revolution was successful.
Expect gunrunning, mysterious disappearances, Mafia plots, failed invasions, nuclear showdowns, the assassination of President Kennedy, and a little light burglary at the Watergate.
Oh, HELL yes.
Othen, you may recall, wrote a hell of a tome on the Katanga crisis of 1960-63.
My appreciation of that book is as unseemly as my love for AT. Not that I’m apologizing…
Othen’s blog tagline is as Ellroyvian as it gets:
Bad People. Strange Times. Good Books.
Othen has a savage appetite for tales of the misfits, gangsters, right-wing whack jobs who all too often turned the wheels of post-World War II 20th century history. Ellroy’s people.
Eleven months is a long time to wait, but it’ll give me an opportunity to pick up a couple of Othen’s other works — and maybe sneak in a re-read of American Tabloid.
Here’s to ’em.