"The Cold Six Thousand," by James Ellroy. Knopf. 688 pages. $26.95.
Hate corrupts. Hate obscures facts. Hate rationalizes, proselytizes and dies hard. In James Ellroy's hands, hate makes grist for incendiary crime fiction that begins with Jack Kennedy's assassination and ends with Bobby's. The new novel, "The Cold Six Thousand," sums up the 1960s as a decade of contempt and cynicism, byproducts of lost innocence. Hate the Commies. Hate the blacks. Hate the Jews. Hate the establishment. Hate the enemy. Hate the war. Hate yourself. Hate sells.
He treads familiar territory. The story of American politics in the 1960s has been refried, mythologized and made-for-TV until it's a blur of fact and supposition. Ellroy massages the truths and legends into a tangle of conspiracy theories as plausible as any that you've heard over cocktails, but more wickedly drawn. Who really killed Jack, Martin and Bobby?
Ellroy's version links the Mafia, the Klan and the FBI; Howard Hughes, Jimmy Hoffa and Fidel Castro; casinos, the Vietnam War, the heroin trade and the assassinations. J. Edgar Hoover lurks in the shadows, ordering blackmail pix and investing tax dollars in mayhem. Connect the dots through a web of alliances and debts among hitmen and soldiers of fortune, spies and weasels and zealots, each harboring an agenda of self-preservation and malice. The double-crosses are delicious. The murders are gory.
The hard part is making the reader care about the twisted lives of the unsavory main characters who are perpetrators of mayhem; this alone is a feat, and sometimes Ellroy succeeds. Sometimes, his tale is overshadowed by the history.
Readers witness the disintegration of Wayne Tedrow Jr., a fictional Las Vegas cop, who is said to be incorruptible. As he unwittingly is drawn into the Kennedy assassination intrigue, he loses all that matters - including his self-respect. Ellroy plumbs Tedrow's descent into unhinged racism and Oedipal urges. By the time he finds himself perched outside the Lorraine Motel, Tedrow the hit man is just beginning to understand who and what he has become.
Ellroy uses Tedrow's plot line to deconstruct racism. Tedrow's buried hate erupts only to be harnessed by others who have greater, devilish intent. In time, Tedrow will learn that his enemy never was an ethnic group, an ideology or a cause. In time, his revenge will be personal.
This was a painful read. Walking around in the heads of unreconstructed racists is no party - and that's just dealing with Ellroy's Frankensteins. By the time the writer gets to the bombing in the Birmingham church, and it's just a yee-haw party for the bombers without so much as a page of the perspective of victims, I'm tired.
It's hard to say what the worst part of it is: maybe the oft-repeated scene in which hate-baiters pass around a clandestinely taped video of Martin Luther King having an affair with a white woman. I nearly bailed out after a few chapters and I spent a lot of time cursing the writer and his characters. More than once, my skin creepy-crawled, which of course, is the writer's intent. Six hundred pages of racial slurs and Klanspeak and depravity later, and -sorry buddy - I'm still not numb to it - not Ellroy's rapid-fire fiction, nor the facts of what really happened in my generation.
Jean Thompson is The Sun's former assistant managing editor for staff development. She has been a reporter at the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Hartford Courant and - for 11 years - The Sun. She collects papers and photographs about African-American history.