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Gutter To The Stars: A Testosterone Fueled Romp

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Adam Levin is the author of Hot Pink and The Instructions.

There aren't many American novels written in the past 20 years that I've been able to recommend as heartily to my parents as to my sisters as to my students as to my writer friends. Actually, other than James Ellroy's American Tabloid, I don't know that there are any. This one is, in equal measure, all of the following: historical fiction, crime thriller, spy thriller, political thriller, stylistic tour de force and slapstick comedy.

The book opens at the close of 1958. Big Pete, a former cop, is watching his employer, Howard Hughes, inject codeine in a Los Angeles hotel room while the Cuban Revolution plays on television. It closes at the close of 1963, in a Dallas hotel room where, after helping an ailing gangster inject heroin, Pete encourages him to wheel himself to the window, the better to see the presidential convertible parade its way toward Dealey Plaza and JFK's end — an end that Big Pete himself has played no small role in helping to orchestrate.

The 98 chapters between these two scenes are interspersed with all manner of fictionalized documents, ranging from newspaper headlines to wiretap transcripts to FBI surveillance reports. As the story unfolds, the book's three protagonists — a pair of FBI agents, and the aforementioned Big Pete — pal around with, work for, and, in their own peculiar way, become some of the most powerful men in America.

In the meantime, they undergo the kind of full-reversal character shifts you rarely find outside of Shakespeare; the company man discovers selfishness, the selfish man discovers loyalty, and the freewheeling thug gets a cause (and someone to love!).

Do we readers discover that Jimmy Hoffa enjoys shark-hunting off the coast of Florida? Why, yes, we do. Does it turn out that Hoffa prefers to hunt for sharks with spears, harpoons, or tommy guns? Take a guess.

And I'd like to tell you that well before the end of the book, you'll find yourself admiring J. Edgar Hoover's sleazy connivances, cheering for the violent downfall of the Kennedys, wishing you were mobbed up in the 1960s more than you have since the first time you saw Goodfellas, and being convinced that our history has been driven by nothing more complicated — and nothing less simple — than the greed, revenge fantasies and sexual appetites of lonely men. But that all sounds like too much, right? And it should be too much. It's really a whole lot. Yet Ellroy nails it.

There isn't a moment of lag here. If someone's not being killed or beaten, he's being shaken down, spied on, bedded or conned. The plot thickens by the jot; and the prose, though it moves faster than that of any other book I've read, never blurs.

In the novel's brief preface, Ellroy declares, "Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. ... It's time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It's time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time. Here's to them."

You might want to resist a book with that kind of thesis, but only if you haven't started reading it yet.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Andrew Otis.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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