James Ellroy in The Big Nowhere (1988) plunges his readers into the world of Los Angeles in the 1950s. The immersion is almost total. No editorial asides or hints let the reader know that the casual and endemic racism and homophobia of the characters is aberrant. In 1950s Los Angeles it is normal, and even those characters who seem the most virtuous embrace racism and homophobia openly. This makes the book a challenge because it is difficult to separate the hatreds of 1950s LA from the positions the book itself takes. The perspective of distance and seventy-five years make the book’s positions clear, but it is the reader who has to infer what they are.
Few books I’ve read give a more sordid and ambiguous account of human nature. Only Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia (1987) exceeds this one in darkness.
Two contending events are at the center of this book. 1950 is the beginning of the McCarthy era, of the Red Scare in Hollywood. LA police are investigating possible connections of an entertainment union to the Communist Party. The Teamsters (who have major ties to organized crime, including the mobster Mickey Cohen) hope to replace the entertainment union: they are conspiring with the LAPD. Another is a series of brutal murders of homosexuals. Although these strands at first seem separate, they soon intertwine in a surprising way.
Ellroy portrays LAPD officers who are ambitious, committed to combatting crime, corrupt, and murderous, in various combinations. Even the characters who seem most admirable are imperfect. He also gives us people who are deeply immersed in the underworld, who have many crimes in their histories, who are capable of love, loyalty, and moral behavior. Every character in this novel is compromised—by virtue, by corruption.
My old professor Matthew Bruccolli is quoted in one of the blurb reviews for this novel as noting the connection between good literature and good social history. He views The Big Nowhere as both. I’m tempted to label this novel as a major literary achievement. It’s powerful, deep and unrelenting in its portrait of LA in 1950 (and by extension of the United States). Its characters are vivid and rounded. Its narrative method—alternating chapters devoted in turn to each of the three main characters—works well and builds suspense and interest. The dialogue is realistic and the most effective way Ellroy illuminates the consciousness of 1950s America (his use of dialogue at moments recalled the crime novels of George V. Higgins). It’s more vivid than Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939).
The identity of the murderer is the main focus of the novel. In the final chapters Ellroy unravels the mystery by resorting to long narrative revelations, in particular given by a psychiatrist who has talked with the murderer, and by police officers telling each other what they know. The novel falters here—up to this point it has gradually brought out the strands and details of the mystery rather than dumping them all in the readers’ lap at the last moment.
The hoodlum, former policeman, and mob stooge Buzz Meeks is the most interesting character in the novel.