Readers of James Ellroy's groundbreaking, best-selling American Tabloid (1995) know pretty much what to expect from The Cold Six Thousand (Knopf; 672 pages; $25.95), which seamlessly picks up the story at the moment the earlier novel ended. Neophytes, though, deserve some advice and counseling. Think twice before you begin the first page. Are you sure you want to witness nearly every lurid conspiracy theory concerning public events during the mid-1960s fleshed out in brutal, nightmarish and totally unsentimental fiction? No? We hardened veterans thought not. Goodbye.
Now, American Tabloid--which all of you still reading this know is about three imaginary psychopaths involved in everything from the Bay of Pigs to the assassination of John F. Kennedy--is a hard book to follow. Having gone way over the top in his first portrait of recent U.S. history as gutter journalism and a paranoid drug trip, Ellroy can't replicate the first-time shock effects of Tabloid and must settle instead for offering more of the same. He does so brilliantly, but the thrills seem familiar.
The two antiheroes who survived Tabloid, Pete Bondurant and Ward Littell, are in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, to do damage control on the J.F.K. "whack" that they helped plan on the orders of their Mob overlords. Also flying into the city that afternoon is a Las Vegas cop named Wayne Tedrow Jr., who has been paid $6,000 by casino operators in his hometown to kill a black pimp named Wendell Durfee. Bondurant and Littell strongarm Jack Ruby into shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, but Tedrow blows his murderous assignment during a fit of conscience. His scruples will diminish when he hooks up with Littell and Bondurant.
Ellroy places these three at the secret center of five years of convulsive events. Littell is a lawyer who represents both Howard Hughes and the Mob bosses who own the Las Vegas casinos Hughes wants to buy. A former Jesuit seminarian and FBI agent, Littell also gets regular phone calls from J. Edgar Hoover with instructions to infiltrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference. For his part, Bondurant sets up a CIA plan to process poppies into heroin in Vietnam and use the profits to finance an insurrection against Fidel Castro in Cuba. Tedrow observes--"His standard procedure was watch"--and learns.
Double crosses are taken for granted in the world Ellroy creates. Suspense develops over the convoluted ways in which triple or quadruple crosses emerge. When he isn't offering taped phone conversations or top-secret memos, the author employs prose totally devoid of subordinate clauses. Here is the reclusive Hughes, dismissively labeled after his odd habits: "Drac stuck to his coffin. Mormons tended him. Drac sucked blood. Drac ate Demerol. Drac shot codeine."
By the time the names Jimmy Ray and Sirhan Sirhan start popping up, old Ellroy hands will know exactly where, in the year 1968, the headlong plot is aimed. No getting around it: The Cold Six Thousand is an exceedingly nasty piece of work. Yet it is often funny--particularly when the fictional Hoover and Hughes appear-- and traces an unexpectedly moral arc through all its mayhem. Pick it up if you dare; put it down if you can.
--By Paul Gray