Picks and Pans Review: American Tabloid

updated 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by James Ellroy

With a snap-brim delivery somewhere between Damon Runyon and Raymond Chandler, an acidulous attitude out of True Detective and an audacious scope beyond his previous range, noir novelist Ellroy offers a cynical—and mesmerizing—take on one of the most dramatic incidents of the century: the JFK assassination.

Ellroy's title is apt. This is history caught between dirty sheets with a needle in its arm and marked bills on the bed. Through fictional conversations, pillow talk and fake headlines—all diabolically imagined—the Kennedys (father and sons), Fidel Castro, Howard Hughes, Marilyn Monroe, J. Edgar Hoover, Peter Lawford and Rock Hudson, among others, stomp across these pages with comic-book vividness.

Relentlessly driving these tangled forces toward Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, are three blue-jawed protagonists. Handsome FBI agent Kemper Boyd goes undercover to spy on the Kennedys and ends up working for them (as well as for fellow CIA agent Ward Littell, an acolyte of Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy's), breaking laws and switching loyalties in his obsession to bring down Jimmy Hoffa. Hulking ex-cop Pete Bondurant plays all sides against the middle, uniting the Mob, the Teamsters, RFK and the CIA against Castro for personal gain.

So who shot JFK? Ellroy's conclusion is as obtuse as his plot. Forces, not triggermen, he seems to say, killed Camelot: greed, avarice, funny business-as-usual. The author's avowed purpose, he proclaims in a swaggering foreword, is "to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars." Tabloid takes us halfway there. (Knopf, $25)

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