“Hating Smart and Hating Dumb”: James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand”

I read The Cold Six Thousand. I thought about The Cold Six Thousand. I figured The Cold Six Thousand was fucked up. It was rough.

James Ellroy wrote a novel. He’s written a bunch. The Cold Six Thousand is the sequel to American Tabloid but it isn’t a repeat. It sometimes reads like one. But it isn’t.

American Tabloid was sharp and taught. The Cold Six Thousand is fat and deranged. It’s about fear and control. One goes up/one goes down. Only the Mob notice.

That’s the problem Ellroy sees. The Mob worry about America losing control. As if all control is fascistic. As if all control is corrupt. Ideals just get you dead. There’s always a corrupting power at work.

DOCUMENT INSERT: 5/7/2009. Extract transcript. Publication: Voodoo Histories. Writing: David Aaronovitch.

The American scholar and author of two books about conspiracy theories, Daniel Pipes, argues that, in essence, a conspiracy theory is simply a conspiracy that never happened, that it is ‘the nonexistent version of a conspiracy’. For the US historian Richard Hofstadter, on the other hand, writing in the early 1960s, what distinguished the true ‘paranoid’ conspiracy theory was its scale, not that ‘its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force of historical events.

[Non-applicable conversation follows]

I think a better definition of a conspiracy theory might be: the attribution of deliberate agency to something that is more likely to be accidental or unintended.

DOCUMENT INSERT: 26/1/2012. Extract transcript, ‘Diary about North Korea’. Publication: London Review of Books. Writing: Tariq Ali, known subversive.

Growing popular anger in the South and an overwhelming desire for reunification triggered the invasion of the South by the North in 1950. Lacking popular support, the Rhee government collapsed and had to be rescued by US troops. The Soviet Union boycotted a Security Council session at which they could have vetoed America’s war, conducted under the UN flag. The Chinese revolution had panicked Washington. It couldn’t be allowed to spread.

US troops and their allies (including the Japanese navy) pushed the North Korean army back. The Chinese revolution was less than a year old and its leaders saw the war in Korea as an attempt to reverse events in China. A Politburo meeting determined to save the Koreans. Chinese troops under the command of General Peng Dehuai crossed the Yalu River in droves. The Americans and their allies were driven back to the 38th parallel. General MacArthur declared that it might be necessary to nuke Chinese air bases; Truman sacked him. In 1953 a truce was signed at Panmunjom on the 38th parallel. Around a million soldiers and two million civilians had died (there are many different estimates). One of them was Mao’s oldest and favourite son.

Conspiracy theories lie. They ask too much. Ellroy’s Chuck Rogers seems to be everywhere America fucks up. It’s not possible.

But conspiracy theories don’t lie.  They stand for venality. They stand for lies. The people at the top lie. The people at the top have agendas. The people at the top invade Korea/Vietnam/Iraq.

James Ellroy was a crime writer. Ellroy wanted something more. Ellroy wrote a trilogy. It was counter-factual. It was conspiracy-driven. It was about America. It was about the underbelly of America.

He called it the USA Trilogy. Its characters aimed for a better life. They aimed for the American Dream. Millions in the bank. Big houses. Swimming pools. They got it through murder and extortion.

The USA Trilogy got Ellroy reviewed in the mainstream press.

But his characters were still investigators/hoodlums/mob men. They were still killers and stiffs. They were just running the country now. In LA Confidential they were eking a living. In American Tabloid they made the world tick like a timebomb.

No one stays top of the pile forever. Old orders break. Hoover is past his best. The Mob notice. Ward Littell/Pete Bondurant from the first book get confused. They get lost.

The new character is Wayne Tedrow Junior.  He saved a drug dealer. The drug dealer murders his wife. He learns hate. He knows hate is senseless. He winds up on top.

The conspiracies in American Tabloid maintained control. The conspiracies in The Cold Six Thousand are unwieldy. They proliferate. Vietnam/ MLK/RFK/Nixon. They bend back on each other. They pollute each other. They have no clear purpose. Except hate. Ellroy’s world gets even darker.

DOCUMENT INSERT: 5/8/2001. Extract transcript. Publication: The Cold Six Thousand. Writing: James Ellroy. Speaking: Wayne Tedrow Sr., Las Vegas Casino proprietor, Mormon, racist; Wayne Tedrow Junior, former LAPD officer, current CIA heroin manufacturer, widow.

“I’ve relinquished my hate-tract business, in order to serve the cause of changing times at a higher level.”

Wayne smiled. “I see Mr. Hoover’s hand.”

“You see twenty-twenty, which tells me the years have no dulled your – “

“Come on, tell me.”

Wayne senior twirled his cane. “I’ve been working with your old chums Bob Relyea and Dwight Holly. We’ve derailed some of the most outlandish overhaters in the whole of Dixie.”

Wayne slugged bourbon. Wayne sucked dregs. Wayne killed the jug.

“Keep going. I like the ‘overhaters’ part.”

Wayne Senior smiled. “You should. There’s hating smart and hating dumb, and you’ve never learned the difference.”

Wayne smiled. “Maybe I’ve been waiting for you to explain it.”

Wayne Senior lit a cigarette – gold-filigreed.

“I fully believe that coloreds should be allowed to vote and have equal rites, which will serve to increase their collective intelligence and inure them to deamgogues like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Your pharmaceutical endeavour gives them the sedation that most of them want and insulates them from the fatuous rhetoric of our era. My policemen friends tell me that colored crime in white Las Vegas has not increased appreciably since your operation began, and your operation serves to isolate coloreds on their side of town, where they would rather be anyway.”

Wayne stretched. Wayne looked north. Wayne checked the Strip view.

Wayne Senior blew smoke rings. “You’re looking pensive. I was gearing up for a smart answer.”

“I’m all out.”

Wayne Senior is Ellroy’s villain-amongst-villains. Wayne Senior schemes. Wayne Senior is a ranting hobgoblin.

He’s what’s wrong with the book. Look at the dialogue. It metastasizes just to fit everything in.

The document inserts multiply. The telegraphic prose over-compensates. The book works too hard.

But the book impresses. It is 670 pages of text like this. It is controlled. It is super-human.

Its characters are always doing. The verb predominates. Their inner life is locked out.

Their world doesn’t allow reflection. It is determined. It is joyless. It is hopeless. It is too much.

The hate. The rage. The offensive language. It revels in the muck of conspiracy. It’s not that muck does not exist. It’s that there’s something else.

The Cold Six Thousand has hope in Pete Bondurant and his wife/in the speeches of MLK and RFK/in the senescence of Hoover. It is carefully composed. It is not stupid. It is not dumb. But does it hate smart? Uncertain.

The book impresses. But it is cold.

2 thoughts on ““Hating Smart and Hating Dumb”: James Ellroy’s “The Cold Six Thousand”

  1. Much Kudos for emulating the Ellroy style for your review!

    I respect James Ellroy immensely but, I have to admit, when I gave ‘The Cold six Thousand’ a go a few years back I gave up about forty pages in. Perhaps I should give it another go? My problem is summed up in what you say at the end of your review ‘The book impresses. But it is cold’ Whilst I found what he’d done with the language and syntax immpressive it was distancing. I had to work to engage and not merely follow the sentences as they flowed. Of course, that isn’t to say there isn’t anything worthwile about having to work harder which is why I’m wondering if I should give it another go?

    Again, I really enjoyed your review ( Perhaps doing an ‘Ellroy’ will become a prose writer equivalent to mastering a sonnet or something)

    Keep blogging…

    • Glad you had fun with the review? For what it’s worth, I can very much understand the point of view which says The Cold Six Thousand isn’t worth the hard slog – it impresses because it is so very relentless, which is a writerly effect of some muscle. This reminds me, though, of the conversation on this blog about The Slap – just because the author has performed a feat, doesn’t mean it’s entertaining.

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