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EDITOR'S CHOICE

The Cold Six Thousand by James Ellroy (Knopf, $25.95). If there's a limit to how many pages of four and five word sentences a human being should be asked to read, 672 is probably exceeding it by a good bit -- even if about 100 of them relieve the hard-boiled ack-ack with the bureaucratese of FBI field reports and the florid rectory pronouncements of J. Edgar Hoover in what are purported to be transcripts of his phone chatter. Nor is James Ellroy's title barely tolerable this time, especially when you consider that previous Ellroy books had such brilliant, succinct titles as "American Tabloid," "White Jazz," "L.A. Confidential" and "The Big Nowhere." ("The Cold Six Thousand" refers merely to the cold cash a man was paid to bump off a fellow who happened to be in Dallas when President Kennedy was assassinated.)

Even so, there is no writer quite like Ellroy anywhere else in American fiction. He is the obsessive, brutal, hard-boiled demimonde version of Don DeLillo, with his own baroque conspiracies peopled by real historic figures in a fictional world and his own, dark, dark obsessions worn proudly on his sleeve. The great Ellroy book is this one's predecessor "American Tabloid." The method in this fatter, blowzier book is almost identical to "American Tabloid" even if it's far more obvious in this one when he's shifting the scene to heroin labs in Vietnam and Southern KKK camps just because he thinks he ought to (it's also more obvious in this one when there may be subtle racism beneath his "what-it-is" relish of American vernacular and defiance of political correctness.)

Even with about half the scuzzy charisma of "American Tabloid," it's still a complex and compelling portrait of how American worlds collide -- the mob with the CIA and the Klan and the FBI and wealthy plutocrats, a whole diseased plague of manipulators arranging the history as the rest of us walk through in a daze. This one begins with the murder of one Kennedy and ends with the murder of another -- all explained in Ellroyese.

The Anatomy of Melancholy By Robert Burton, with a new introduction by William H. Gass (NYRB Books, $22.95 paper). Laurence Sterne cribbed from it, John Keats found the story behind "Lamia" in its pages and Milton found his way to "Il Penseroso" through it. Byron told friends to read it and Samuel Johnson would emerge from bed to read it "two hours sooner than he wanted to rise." And now, in a fine new introduction, patrician postmodernist William H. Gass praises "Robert the Ranter" with his "unashamed display of . . . lust for The Word -- his desire to name each thing or find a song in which each thing can be sung."

It's a 17th century commonplace book which, somehow, swelled to become one of the great masterpieces of English prose, however much it now seems to some like an antiquarian's library too vast and musty to be explored. In a life spent as the librarian of Christ's Church College at Oxford, Robert Burton seems not only to have read everything but to have systematized a world of classical learning into a vast syllabus for understanding that there is "never so much cause of laughter as now, never so many fools and madmen." Never, since Burton's own time, has he failed to find those who would agree that applies to their own -- hence the continued delight of this 1,300 page paradise of quotation, the sort of one-man encyclopedia for which a certain kind of human brain will always have a weakness.

Let anyone who doubts its relevance after four centuries read -- almost at random -- Burton on "bad air as a cause for melancholy" and then read up on modern "sick building syndrome."

This New York Review of Books classics edition is its first unabridged edition in years.

-- Jeff Simon

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