Through a Dark Vision of L.A. : James Ellroy’s conception of the city is one of almost total chaos and corruption. Sleaze oozes out of the sidewalks. Greed and twisted passions hang in the air--just the way he lived it.
The summer his mother was murdered, James Ellroy, 10, became a night owl. Left alone often in his father’s “flea bag pad,” he would turn off the lights and stare out the window at the cars rolling along Beverly Boulevard. After the bars closed, he would track the cop cruisers flashing by, stalking boozed up drivers.
Those nights have stuck with Ellroy for 32 years. Despite all that came later--and the horror that went before--the boy who became a novelist of crime in the City of the Angels is still looking out that window.
“When I am completely engulfed in the mechanics of crime writing, I can feel myself going back to the summer of ’58 and drawing some kind of dark awe and wonder by subjectively placing myself looking out that kitchen window at Beverly Boulevard,” he says.
But what Ellroy--self-described former house-breaker, shoplifter, golf caddy, drug user and alcoholic--sees on these imaginary jaunts is not a mundane river of that era’s Cadillacs, Edsels and Studebakers.
The high school dropout conjures his own vision of Los Angeles, melded from the anarchy of his own past and the lurid tempest of the city’s history. What he sees is bleaker than the surface of Mars, more violent than the heart of the sun.
In eight pulpy, gritty, ultra-violent crime novels, often set in the 1940s and ‘50s, Ellroy, who jokingly styles himself “the demon dog of American literature,” has painted a Los Angeles of almost total chaos and corruption.
The good guys are good only in comparison to the bad guys, who are unspeakable. Sleaze oozes out of the sidewalks. Greed and twisted passions hang in the air, fighting with smog for top spot on the pollution chart.
Then, there’s the fear.
Everybody is scared, sweating and running an adrenaline deficit--with good reason. The average character’s life expectancy is shorter than the barrel of a snub-nosed revolver.
And you don’t want to know what’s wrapped in a blanket and stuffed under a house.
Now, Ellroy, 42, is publishing his ninth book, 460-plus pages of mayhem stoked with slam-bang, telegraphic prose that may give readers whiplash. “L.A. Confidential,” he says, is his most ambitious and potentially controversial work, a peak in fictional intensity that even the author concedes makes for “exhausting” reading.
It also carries Ellroy’s obsession with the city’s past to new pitch. Set in the 1950s, the novel’s plot swirls around the shotgun killings of six people in an all-night coffee shop.
But in its sprawl, “L.A. Confidential” (The Mysterious Press) reaches out to encompass the construction of the city’s freeways, the opening of an amusement park called “Dream-a-Dreamland,” early television, a pornography ring, heroin smuggling, gangsters, crooked elections and the chicanery of Hollywood gossip magazines.
In fact, one of the book’s main characters--police detective “Trashcan” Jack Vincennes--sets up movie stars with planted drugs for a scandal sheet called “Hush-Hush.” Throughout, historical characters, such as Los Angeles police chief William Parker--namesake of the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters--rub elbows with Ellroy’s creations.
Obviously, for Ellroy, Los Angeles is a veritable jungle of inspiration.
“I think we have been lucky enough or unfortunate enough to have a great many auspicious crimes here,” he says. “There’s the specter of the movies here, that whole sense of illusion and corruption. It’s a physically beautiful place that’s been plundered and I think that’s powerful in itself.”
It is so powerful that Ellroy wouldn’t mind coming back here in another incarnation: “If I were to die tomorrow, and the Big Surfer up there says, ‘Ellroy, what do you want?’ I would willingly forgo the chance to write, the chance to have sex, the chance to eat well, just to be able to go back and be a bug on the wall in L.A. from, say, 1939 to 1959.”
Though Ellroy once immersed himself in the underbelly of the city’s history, reading newspaper microfilm until his eyes ached, he makes no claims that his version of Los Angeles bears any connection with reality.
“Do I think it was as corrupt back then as I portray it? I honestly don’t know,” he says. “The bottom line is that it feels dramatically valid to me.”
There are truckloads of paradox and irony here.
Chiefly, Ellroy left Los Angeles for New York nine years ago, shortly before his first novel, “Brown’s Requiem,” was published. Yet this long time later, he’s not entirely sure what drove him all the way to the East Coast. When the subject comes up, he offers a scattershot of reasons, including a desire “not to be the last one to leave the L.A. party” and to make a fresh start.
He certainly seems to have needed a new lease on life. Throughout a misspent adolescence and youth, he was in and out of jail, usually on minor charges such as shoplifting, he says. He also confesses that he was a house-breaker, a drug user and an alcoholic, living on the margins, sleeping in deserted houses, tossed by chance and not much caring where he landed.
When his father died in 1965, Ellroy was cut loose from whatever small anchor remained in his life. For more than a decade, he rode the crazy waves of addiction and drunkenness, he says.
Eventually, he drank himself into a hospital where he began to sober up, knowing that otherwise cheap wine and rot-gut whiskey would kill him, sooner rather than later. He began caddying at the Bel-Air Country Club and writing in his off hours, finally making a stab at a craft he had always wanted to try.
So it’s not surprising that the main strand of Ellroy’s departure from Los Angeles seems to be woven from disenchantment with the city that inspires his work and fear, the survival emotion that pervades all of his books, just as it pervaded his childhood.
“I remember being scared by ‘Dragnet’ on television,” he recalls. “The cops scared me as much as the criminals, these repressed Jack Webb flat-head types. I remember looking through True Detective magazines--my dad had a big stack of them--and being scared.”
When he returns here, as he does often, Ellroy says he finds more and more to dislike.
“I think it’s deteriorated in every conceivable away, from the traffic to the pollution to the crime, the quality of the daily life,” he says, sounding like many other disgruntled former--and current--residents.
But Ellroy’s disenchantment is alloyed with stronger stuff. “I know that when I come here to L.A. I feel fear here--that anything can happen here,” he explains. “And I don’t feel that in New York City or anywhere in the environs.”
While he discounts it now--professing to be worn out by the subject and his endless recounting of it to interviewers--his mother’s murder in El Monte in 1958 was a core event in his life.
His parents were divorced when he was 6 and he spent weekends with his father. On one such weekend, his mother, a registered nurse, went out drinking on Saturday night. She was last seen alive leaving a bar with a man and a young woman. Her nude body, wrapped in an overcoat, was discovered in a clump of bushes in El Monte. She had been strangled.
Ellroy remembers that he and his father had to take a bus to El Monte. “When I got there, cops all over the place and I knew immediately she had been murdered,” he recalls. “They told me she was dead. They picked up the old man. My mother had scratched the guy who killed her. He was unmarked, it couldn’t be him.”
The killer has never been found.
In 1987 Ellroy published “The Black Dahlia,” a novel based on the notorious murder and dismemberment of a young woman in Los Angeles. It bore this dedication: “To Geneva Hilliker Ellroy, 1915-1958. Mother: Twenty-nine Years Later, This Valediction in Blood.”
Today, Ellroy discusses his past almost with the detachment of an observer.
“Although it certainly makes for good drama to make my mother’s death the catalyst, I think the curiosity about crime was there even earlier,” he says. “And I think what’s behind all of this is that desire that we all have to go back and create our own pasts and make order out of it. . . . What I greatly enjoy is showing my protagonists completely out of control while (at the same time) they’re trying to restore order. . . . My past was especially chaotic and I think that’s one of the reasons I draw so much satisfaction from describing chaotic events.”
While he has garnered a fair share of favorable comment, Ellroy’s penchant for hyperbole, his manic characters and supercharged action have not always found favor with the critics. A Los Angeles Times reviewer complained that “The Big Nowhere” contains prose “so extreme as to approach parody and make the whole thing read like a verbal comic book.”
On the other hand, Los Angeles novelist Steve Erickson, critically acclaimed author of “Tours of the Black Clock” and “Leap Year,” believes that Ellroy is a trail blazer. His friend Ellroy is “an enormously ambitious writer who really means . . . to use genre fiction or pulp fiction as a foundation for writing serious novels,” he says.
In a profile of Ellroy for the L.A. Weekly, Erickson also noted, “One of the recurring lessons of James Ellroy’s work is that nothing is so vicious it’s beyond human, that the things we might suppose are unspeakable only wait for a new language.”
Compared with what went before, Ellroy’s life in 1990 is a continent of calm. He was married 18 months ago. He and his wife, Mary, moved into their new house in Connecticut this month. Ellroy concedes that he may need the order of his new life.
“I’m a square white guy living in Connecticut,” he says with a straight face. “I like some middle-class trappings like living in a clean neighborhood where you’re not tripping over 46 junkies on your way down to the store. But I’ve got all the turmoil going on in my head at the same time. Sometimes I think that I need the outward protection of my surroundings in order to live comfortably in my head.”
At the moment, Ellroy’s head is recovering from the marathon of writing “L.A. Confidential.”
“If I kick of a heart attack six or seven years down the road, it’ll be because this book took a lot out of me,” he says. “It was the toughest piece of work I’ve ever done. It’s dense, it’s complex, it’s layered, it’s long.” Before he carved out more than 100 pages, the massive typed manuscript weighed in at more than 800 pages, he adds.
One reason for Ellroy’s exhaustion may be the low-tech way he writes his books. “I write by hand. I block print all capitals and I have this great typist who works for me who always knows what to capitalize and what not to,” he says.
In “L.A. Confidential,” Ellroy has produced what is probably his most experimental book. The condensed prose, the result of editing down the original manuscript, seems to hurtle along, giving a reader a sense of boarding a high-speed train loaded with disaster and mayhem.
Take, for example, the novel’s first paragraph, arguably the most uneventful in the entire book:
“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with $94,000, 18 pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switch blade he’d bought off a pachuco at the border--right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to boot jack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”
Less than three pages later, Meeks is dead, killed in a shoot-out with a posse of rogue police. And that is only the prologue.
Another bit of irony: With “L.A. Confidential,” Ellroy may be tapering off his intense preoccupation with Los Angeles. “White Jazz"--his next book and final installment in a quartet of Los Angeles novels that includes “The Black Dahlia” and “The Big Nowhere"--will be smaller and less complicated. After that, Ellroy says he’ll move on to other parts of the country, eventually re-creating 20th Century America in a series of crime novels.
He couldn’t stop writing even if he tried, he wryly admits.
“I know that I have to do it and it’s such a compulsion,” he says. “I know that I have to do it to feel good about myself. I know that my need to impress people and improve myself hasn’t abated with age. Nine books in, you’d think that it might. It gets worse.”