Don't Mistake `Blood's A Rover' For History

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"Blood's a Rover" (Alfred A. Knopf, 636 pages, $28.95), by James Ellroy: James Ellroy, the mad genius of American letters, snarls and spits at you from the page in this jaw-dropping conclusion to his paranoid "Underworld USA" trilogy.

He spent eight years writing this dense, massive epic, which picks up where "American Tabloid" and "The Cold Six Thousand" left off. Together, the three novels tear down the turbulent history of America between 1958 and 1972 and rewrite it to include every paranoid fantasy from the far left and the far right, throwing in a bunch more no one else could have dreamed up.

As "Blood's a Rover" opens, the FBI is frantically trying to cover up its complicity in the John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations. J. Edgar Hoover is collaborating with the Mafia to undermine political enemies and to destroy the country's black power and peace movements. And Howard Hughes and the mob are paying off Richard Nixon for his help in trying to build a new casino empire in the Dominican Republic.

The book has a dozen major characters and scores of minor ones, some of them invented and many of them real historical figures. But as Ellroy tells it, none of them is a decent human being.

And darned near everybody is shooting heroin, popping amyl nitrate, or indulging in truly exotic illegal drugs.

The closest thing the book has to a hero, a Los Angeles private detective named Don Crutchfield, is portrayed as a panty-stealing peeping Tom.

The plot, which includes a conspiracy to assassinate Hoover, a violent armored car heist and efforts to both foment and put down Communist revolutions in the Caribbean, is so convoluted that it cannot be summarized.

It includes, among other things, leftist protests at the 1972 political conventions in Chicago and Miami, black revolutionaries, the Klu Klux Klan, voodoo, zombies, heroin running, slave labor in the Dominican Republic, patricide, lots of illegal electronic surveillance, torture, emeralds and Haiti's Ton Ton Macoutes.

Meanwhile, right- and left-wing operatives jump into bed together, figuratively and literally, and loyalties shift so often that it can be hard to keep track of it all.

The body count is high throughout, the violence graphically depicted. And Ellroy peppers the dialogue with racial and homophobic epithets that most will find offensive although it's just the kind of language that would naturally come out of the mouths of his characters.

As always, he tells his story in a unique style that combines short, machine-gun sentences with hipster lingo. A sample: "The Loop was hot. A choppy lake breeze goosed the thermometer. The cops wore helmets and short-sleeved shirts. They packed nightsticks and saps. The hippies wore deface-the-flag garb. They packed Coke bottles and rocks. Potential fracas. Both groups spoiled for it. The night heat said GO _ you know you want this."

The book and the trilogy it is a part of are a remarkable literary achievement. Just don't mistake it for history.

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