The Great Right Place: James Ellroy Comes Home
My old church is a condo block. The Black Dahlia site remains ‘50s intact. L.A. is all new and wholly familiar. It’s why I ran away and why I ran back.
The street grids are unchanged. Overbuilding has blocked out views and blitzed topography. Old buildings abut pocket malls. Old parks are wrapped in iron gates. L.A. is epidemically everywhere and discernible only in glimpses.
The L.A. mandate was always enticement and expansion. That marks all growth as just and true. Hometowns should offer the proper balance of safety and inspiration. I call inspiration a sense of danger contained. L.A. got too safe 25 years ago. I got out then. My life got too dangerous five years ago. I pondered safety zones for a long interval.
I learned that I’m only safe here.
The rooms were lush. The bathtub was big. The mini-bar featured gourmet potato chips and chocolate-coated almonds. My Beverly Wilshire hotel suite--spring 2002.
I love hotel suites. They make me feel like King Farouk in exile. I bestow mystic status on L.A. hotel suites. They are safety zones and affirmations of my inflated self-hood. I spent bad years in L.A. I slept in parks and did county jail time for puerile misdemeanors. How suite it is. Let’s exult in how you overcame your hometown disadvantage.
Not this time.
I was midway through a three-year crack-up. It was the upshot of long transits of overwork and emotional seepage held in check by near-insane ambition. Brutal sleeplessness and panic attacks. Sobbing jags and weightless plummets.
It was a six-week hotel stay. My alleged L.A. agenda: take a neurofeedback course to curb insomnia. My real L.A. mission: hide out and seek safety in the wild-ass place that made me.
My marriage was burning down. My nerves were shot. My mind ran in obsessive circuits. I was strung out on sedatives, sleeping pills and herbal uppers. I flew and drove around L.A., staring at women. I crashed and tried to slake my king-size sleep deficit.
I was afraid that I’d lose my mind. I was afraid that I’d fully regain my mind and return to the work regime that cracked me up to begin with. I lost my mind on an L.A. rooftop in 1975. I knew it could happen again. Drugs salved my nervous system. Drugs provided sleep. Drugs failed to quash my dreams or alter their recurring backdrop.
It was L.A. then. The old neighborhood--Beverly and Western. The park I hid out in. The locales of cop rousts and losing fistfights. The dive apartment that I ran from and left my father to die in.
The physical dreamscape was dark-toned and ‘60s-’70s vintage. The thematic dreamscape was all fear. I was walking the streets. I was homeless in the city I had rendered with great success as a writer. I was bewildered, disconsolate, completely lost.
The hotel suite ran five bills a night. The tab bought me a safety zone and a plush nightmare enclosure. Then and now merged. I ran back to the place I ran from. I subsisted on drugged sleep and failed to countermand my unconscious. L.A. was epidemically everywhere. I needed to be here. In the crack-up spring of 2002, I never asked myself why.
L.A. bids pundits to spin epigrams. W.H. Auden called L.A. “The Great Wrong Place.” I’ll ascribe intent. Auden saw L.A. as a lodestone for opportunists and psychically maimed misfits. I sense this because I fall into both categories. Auden couched L.A. in a film-noir construction. Losers migrated here to start over and become someone else. L.A. was a magnet for lives in desperate duress. The sheer indifference of the place consumed the migrants and drove them mad. They succumbed to madness in a sexy locale. The place itself provided solace and recompense. They had the comfort of other arriviste losers. They entered the L.A. spiritus mundi. They handed out their head shots. They joined that unique L.A. casting call.
For picaresque grifters, dollar-driven D.A.s, well-hung gigolos, hollow-eyed strumpets, hophead jazz musicians, pervert cops, alcoholic private eyes, sadistic studio heads, laudanum-lapping layabouts, homosexual informants, religious quacks and an uncategorizable array of stupes with indefinable psychopathic mandates and plain inconsolable despair.
I can’t claim migrant status. My parents moved here. I was hatched on Wilshire Boulevard during the film-noir era. My parents were good-looking denizens of despair. They loved L.A. They might have understood the banality at the heart of Auden’s big perception: L.A. is all about big antics, big misbehavior, big hyperbole.
My mother was a statuesque redhead from hick-town Wisconsin. She won a beauty contest and breezed through L.A. in ’38. She tanked a screen test. She bombed back to her registered-nurse gig in Chicago. She got pregnant, got a scrape, married a rich geek and divorced him pronto. She ran. She landed in L.A. in ’40.
My father was here already. She was 25. He was 42. He served in World War I and embellished his exploits with ham-actor flair. She bought his rebop. He was big and handsome and packed panache as a Rita Hayworth gofer. His marriage? An impediment circumventable by quickie divorce.
They shacked up. He divorced the first Mrs. Ellroy. They got hitched in ’47. I was born in ’48. He blew his Rita Hayworth gig and schemed up deals that never caught spark. She held down nursing jobs and flew on cheap bourbon nightly. They splitsvilled in ’55. A split-custody decree followed. I went to school, went to church and read my father’s scandal rags. I caught a cavalcade of casting calls and grokked L.A., kiddie bug-eyed.
It felt like a small-town big city. There were wide streets devoid of traffic and vacant lots on Wilshire. The air sparkled or hazed with incinerator dust. A big sky tamped down a wide-and-low floor plan. Hills bracketed the north. The southern boundary was somewhere down around nowhere. The beach formed the western perimeter. The eastern edge was midway between downtown and forever.
The orderly neighborhoods ran to sloth in gradual shadings. Negroes lived south, Mexicans lived east, white folks lived everywhere. We were white Protestants and had the world by the nuts. And L.A. was the whole world to me.
I synced L.A. to narrative early on. The Sunset Strip--a scandal-rag haunt of dissolute celebs. Beach jaunts--imbued with bad juju. Negroes and Mexicans hobnobbed in cliques and kicked up sand as they sauntered. I watched them. I got little-kid race-o-phobic and xenophobic. They were alien intruders. L.A. was everywhere and thereby planet Earth. They were humanoids from satellites named “Watts” and “Boyle Heights.”
My father explained geographic law to me. L.A. is a sweet deal. Everybody wants a taste, and you can’t blame them. Sweet deals always go sour. Too many people want the same thing--and when it’s a place to be, there’s trouble.
Prescient prediction. Expansion, overpopulation, racial rancor. Smog-smeared days in a horn-honking hellhole--enjoy this place while you can.
I bopped back and forth between parents. The shuttle shot from Santa Monica to Hollywood. I went from cool air to hot air within 30 minutes. I dug the Goody-Goody Drive-in in Santa Monica. I dug the Scrivner’s Drive-in in Hollywood. I dug bright pastel stucco in Santa Monica, still fresh new paint. I dug the wood-frame pads and space-age pads in Hollywood, all style mish-mash. I dug the L.A.-as-epidemically-everywhere world all around me--wonder-inducing environs.
The Great Wrong Place held me and refined my imagination. It stanched the big wrong wound I carried around as a stigmatized child of divorce. It carried me up to early ’58.
My mother moved us out to El Monte. It was a smog-smacked suburb 14 miles east of downtown L.A. It was in the San Gabriel Valley. A freeway stretch linked a series of drab flatland towns. Dust, heavy heat, hotbox houses going up. A big L.A. expansion. Murky moons of planet Earth--scare-inducing environs.
El Monte was L.A. cut-rate. Roofs ran low. The sky came on carcinogenic. Unpaved roads. Jalopies. Lounging knots of Okies and pachucos. A non-L.A. that had to be L.A. because it was connected to L.A. contiguously.
It spooked me. It fear-juked my imagination. This new-L.A./non-L.A. was five-day-a-week exile. I pined for weekends in real-L.A. with my father. I was a kiddie captive in a straaaaange land. I wanted out. I got my wish on 6/22/58.
My mother was murdered. The crime was purely L.A.-adjacent. It was a hot Saturday night. She was out with a man. He strangled her and dumped her on an access road.
I was in the real-L.A./safe-L.A./now-non-safe-forever-L.A. that weekend. The central event of my life occurred off-page. The crime remains unsolved. Geneva Hilliker Ellroy is a ghost who haunts me in ellipsis and talks to me through flesh-and-blood women.
She has a younger sister whom I also hold dear. Betty Short ran to L.A. with the same heedless drive as Jean Hilliker. They rest dead as L.A. opportunists, and I have ceaselessly worked to recast them as L.A. immortals.
Our apartment was small and cramped. The three rooms reeked of dog residue. My father handed me my 11th birthday gift.
My mother was seven months dead. I survived the initial shock and regrouped faaaaast. I’d spent the last months of my mother’s life devoured by anger and lust. She hit me once. I fell off the couch, gouged my head on a table edge and vowed never again. I loitered in the bathroom, poised for glimpses of her naked. I loved her scent. I poured her perfume on a wad of her underwear and carried it with me to smell her.
Now she was dead. Now there was no more church and homework. Now I had a life with my lazy father. Let’s sleep late and short-shrift your schooling. Let’s prowl and peep women in backlit bedroom windows. Let’s shut your mother out with a callous child-opportunist’s heart. Let’s exult in how you overcame your maternal disadvantage.
Not this time.
I unwrapped my gift. It was Jack Webb’s book “The Badge.” Webb extolled the LAPD and recounted some of its signature cases. My father knew I loved crime stories. I knew my reading focus was postmortem study. I didn’t know that book solutions kept my mother’s ghost suppressed. My father didn’t know that he’d handed me a time bomb.
Webb described the Black Dahlia murder case. The 10-page summary shot me into freefall.
The Black Dahlia was a Boston girl named Elizabeth Short. She was a wartime arriviste. She traveled west to chase servicemen and pursue stardom dreams. She was every bit the L.A. opportunist. She was tortured and murdered on 1/15/47. Her severed body was dumped in a vacant lot at 39th and Norton, Leimert Park, L.A. The case remains unsolved.
Transmogrification--Jean to Betty.
I didn’t know it then. I only knew that a second ghost had beckoned me to obsession.
I bike-tripped to 39th and Norton. I stood there and caught vibes. The vacant lot was paved over. Recently built houses ran north to south. L.A. eras blended seamlessly. I re-created the crime scene and populated it with period cops and cars. I brain-screened humpback Fords bombing down Crenshaw. I depopulated L.A. to ‘40s habitation stats and filled it with vacant lots and dead women. The Dahlia was epidemically everywhere in my kid-autodidact L.A.
In my mind, in my heart, in my nightmares.
She invaded my sleep. I witnessed her dismemberment in a hundred dream showings. The saws, the vivisection tools, the blood-draining bathtub. My unconscious served up hideous detail.
I bike-tripped to the Central Library. I scanned the Dahlia case on microfilm and gorged myself on vanished L.A. I time-tripped ’59 to ’47. L.A. bipped black and reprised itself in old news pix. I made L.A.-now L.A.-then. I began to live in the dual L.A. that I’ve lived in ever since.
The perceived L.A. was the square workday world that most people considered real. The real L.A. was crime and sex and outre pathology. L.A. was a force field. L.A. attracted squares. They formed the population bulk and camouflaged the fiends. The benign L.A. climate and egalitarian vibe were a shuck. The real L.A. migration was a mass yearning for human blood. The ice cream man was a child molester. The kindly cop was a rapist. The starlet was a syphilitic whore. Malign messages swirled in smog particles, detectable only by me. I possessed X-ray eyes.
I caromed through unreal-L.A. I walked tenuously and endured pratfalls. Everything scared me. I shied away from other kids and squeaked by in school. I lived in real-L.A. with implacable rage.
I roamed and voyeurized. I lived in a dogshit-flecked dump near Hancock Park. The big houses enticed me. I snuck close and peeped windows. I wanted to observe the jive concept of happy families. I wanted to see women undressed.
My thoughts looped back to L.A.-then ceaselessly. The war was over. L.A. was a boomtown. Pint-size hood Mickey Cohen held sway. The Sunset Strip rocked. The Brenda Allen vice scandal torqued LAPD. Sex murders, bank heists, gangland rubouts. The Two Tonys snuff, the Club Mecca torch, gap-tooth psycho Stephen Nash. One lonely little boy, perversely attuned. One wiiiiild imagination afire.
And a sustained narrative of place. And a constant their-L.A./my-L.A. collision.
School was drudgery. My father made me go. I daydreamed in class and stalked girls in hallways. I craved respect and kindness and did nothing constructive to earn them. Brief friendships ended in fistfights. All human interaction was fearful and vexing. It pushed me back into myself--and into L.A.
I bike-roamed. I saw things. I learned things. I escaped my sweltering dog den and dug on L.A. at large. I roamed Hollywood, snuck into movie theaters and watched crime flicks. I grooved on baaaaad juxtaposition--L.A. and cops-and-robbers tales. I roamed Beverly Hills. I scoped out Tudor mansions and Spanish haciendas and pondered the clash. I loved rich-ass neighborhoods. I looked for safety zones within the danger zone of real-L.A. I stopped, I stared, I expunged my poverty for brief moments. I did not covet affluence from an aggrieved perspective. I was a conjurer and an alchemist. I turned everything I saw into drama.
L.A. was changing. Vacant lots were disappearing. Negroes were moving north, Mexicans were moving west. The skyline was beelining up with tall new buildings. New freeways were laid out. I indulged spontaneous fantasy. Traffic jams were fallout from bank jobs gone bad. Smog was poison gas synthesized by master criminals. All L.A. women were potential murder victims that only I could save.
My mental machinations had tipped L.A. off the axis of planet Earth. My adolescent arrogance was remorseless. I sensed social trends and confronted them preposterously. Mexican hordes moving west? White man Ellroy halts the flow at 1st and Normandie. Negro hordes moving north? Ellroy toasts them with a flamethrower. The JFK snuff? Conspiracy for sure, and surely hatched in L.A. Kid-sleuth Ellroy nails a Commie cabal in the Hollywood Hills.
It was an often entertaining and invasively debilitating madness. It buffered me through a big patch of the ‘60s and my father’s failing health. My lunacy ascended as his body wore down. He had strokes and heart attacks. I ditched school, roamed and caused trouble.
I shoplifted books and girlie magazines. I built model airplanes and blew them up with cherry bombs. I raided the pop-bottle bin behind the Larchmont Safeway repeatedly. I called bomb threats in to high schools. I was a marauding minor misanthrope. I ran 6’3”, 140, 50 pounds of it zits. I claimed L.A. as my stomping ground. L.A. claimed me as a full-time fantasist-perv.
That claim began to rankle. My father was dying. The stay-in-L.A. price tag was watching him kick. I got kicked out of high school. I joined the Army and booked to Fort Polk, Louisiana. I ran from L.A. for the first time.
It was one biiiiig shock. A world outside my created world existed. There was a world outside L.A.
Basic training. Louisiana in late spring and summer. Swamp heat and bugs bigger than Lassie. Marching, drilling, calisthenics. I was a jejune 17. The Army terrified me. It was discipline and duty. An affront to my self-pampered mind and soul. A giant get-back inducement.
I mourned L.A. I pined for L.A. I was the L.A. libertine chastity-belted and the L.A. widower bereft. I started scheming extrication. My father had another stroke. I faked a nervous meltdown accelerated by grief. I stuttered. I made my long body twitch. An Army shrink bought it. I got two emergency leaves and a general discharge. I saw my father die. I felt nothing but relief.
L.A. took me back. Her idiot son returned with a hard-on to be somebody. L.A. met me with indifference. I was both native son and second-generation opportunist. L.A. did not know that I was very hot shit. I settled in for some demon destiny.
The ‘60s sizzled. I tried to reshape the era narrative-wise. I discovered booze. I discovered dope sans counterculture hoo-ha. I got bombed and roamed L.A. in my head. I sensed social change. I eschewed dippy discourse and turned it to crime. The Watts riots. The Jack Kirschke murder case. Sex snuffs galore. My all-L.A. lens. A time-and-place immersion.
The ‘60s into the ‘70s. More sex killings, Black Panther brouhaha, Manson family hijinks. L.A. held me, tweaked me and coddled me. Downtown hotel rooms ran 12 scoots a week--haven habitats all. L.A. was both safety zone and danger zone. I had a predator’s feel for safe byways. My safety quotient ran equivalent to my danger quotient. My safety-net environment freed me to think dangerously and pursue self-destruction at my own unique pace.
I shoplifted food and books. I dined-and-dashed restaurants. I read in public libraries and nurtured the nutso dream that I’d become a great writer. I lived in dive pads. I got evicted and crashed in parks and gas station johns. I broke into houses and stole women’s bras and panties. I shared looted lunchmeat with stray dogs and conversed with them at some length. I popped pills, boozed to great excess, smoked weed and guzzled cough syrup. I read crime novels. I went to crime movies. I watched crime TV shows. I sold my blood for five scoots a pint. I broke into apartment-house laundry rooms and pried coins out of washers and dryers. I did county jail time for Mickey Mouse misdemeanors. I walked around L.A. incessantly. I stuffed cotton in my ears to quash nonexistent voices. I stashed skin magazines in shrubbery all over L.A. I snuck into porno films. I sat on bus benches and eyeballed women.
L.A.: temperate, sunny, ideal for outdoor living. A wide range of options, until they narrow to live or die.
The rooftop was gritty and tar-papered. A covered landing provided shelter. I woke up and could not remember my name.
I tried. I dug in synaptically. I recalled other names. My own name refused to click in.
It was June ’75. I was 27. I was three weeks out of a booze-rehab tank in Long Beach. The building stood at Pico and Robertson. A buddy lived on the second floor.
I could not remember my name. I tried for an hour plus. My brain wires continued to fritz. I started screaming. My buddy heard me and called an ambulance. The white-coat men came and hauled me to County General.
My screams left me voiceless. Somebody stuck a spike in my arm. I went blank, woke up and put my name together. The expression of identity horrified me. There was no place to run from or run to.
Survival chastened me. My early Lutheran training kicked in. I had my mind back. It was a temp loan from God. The brain-fritz was divine reprisal for my transgressions. I believed it then. I don’t disbelieve it now.
A bout of lung disease followed. I survived it. I went back to outdoor living with restraint and circumspection. I abstained from stealing. I got a job caddying at a posh country club. I got a cheap pad. I walked around L.A. at a more sedate pace. My fear of self metamorphosed into a fear of L.A. I probed it like a diagnostician.
L.A. had overdosed me. Extreme stimulation had fried my brain pan. I had raped a beautiful place. I had usurped its essence to tell myself sick stories. My mind was infused with an L.A. virus. Wrong L.A. thoughts and undue L.A. stimuli could unravel me.
I believed it then. I don’t disbelieve it now. I was a tory mystic then, and I remain one.
I tried to keep L.A. at a proper mental distance. I wrestled with remorse and felt stirrings of ambition. They racked me and ravaged me and sent me topsy-turvy. I knew I had to change my life from the ground up.
I did it. I got sober in ’77. I saw a way to honor L.A. and repay my big L.A. debt. A story had come to me. My sober state had allowed it to build. I knew it was a novel. I knew I had to write it.
I wrote it. I titled it “Brown’s Requiem” and sold it. Avon Books scheduled it for September ’81 and gave me a chump-change advance.
I blew town with the money. L.A. was too old, too new, too encumbered by my dead. I moved east to write about L.A. from a decorous distance. I thought I had overcome my hometown curse. I was very much wrong.
Suburban New York. Five more novels in five years. A flowering knowledge of craft. Transference writ large. Long-term dissipation channeled into the work-ethic supreme.
L.A.? Contained in my books. Divorced from here and now, compressed as there and then.
“The Black Dahlia” was my seventh novel. I deliberately delayed the writing. I wanted to build story-telling muscle. I needed to brace myself for life in L.A. ’47. Ghosts might flee their shuttered compartments. Geneva Hilliker Ellroy might ambush me.
It didn’t happen. I attacked L.A. ’47. I rebuilt L.A.-then to my own specifications.
A book tour followed. I exploited the Jean-Betty connection and hit media gold. “The Black Dahlia” became a bestseller. I reduced the Jean-Betty tale to sound bites and sold it wholesale. The book was passionate and achingly rendered. My publicity performances were compelling and glib concurrently. The tour was an effort of banishment. I addressed Jean and Betty brusquely. I’ve surmounted you, I’ve superseded your influence, I’m done with you now.
I was wrong.
I decided to live in L.A.-then exclusively. I wrote “The Big Nowhere” and lived in L.A. 1950. “L.A. Confidential” covered ’50 to ’58. “White Jazz” ran into ’59. I called the body of work the L.A. Quartet. I told the Jean-Betty tale to the point of mind-numbing attenuation and riffed blithely on L.A.-then. Repetition killed the wonder of L.A.-then for me. My trips to now-L.A. confirmed my burnout. I had a name, I had money. I lived in hotel suites and chased women. I tried to reclaim L.A. on the basis of my success. It didn’t work. I decided to leave L.A. creatively. I decided to write non-L.A. books.
My personal life advanced recklessly. I met a woman, married her, divorced her and married another woman. I moved from New York to Connecticut to Kansas City. My work habits were megalomaniacal. I guzzled large carafes of coffee and wrote 300-page outlines for my novels. My books were monumental models of construction. My book tours were epic journeys. My friends warned me to slow down. I ignored them.
“American Tabloid” was published in ’95. It was a big look at systemic corruption during Jack Kennedy’s ride. I turned L.A.-then into the U.S.A.-then. I upgraded my L.A. vision to the whole country. I thought I’d knocked L.A. out of me. I thought I had my hometown dicked.
Again, I was wrong.
Events intersected. A reporter friend saw my mother’s murder file. He was writing a story on San Gabriel Valley homicides. My wife got me a Christmas gift. It was a news photo dated 6/22/58. I stood in a neighbor’s garage. I was blank-faced. A cop had just said, “Son, your mother’s dead.”
I can read signs. I know confluence. I know opportunity.
I hustled a magazine assignment. Go--see your mother’s file and write about it.
L.A. slammed me anew. I flew out and saw the file. A sheriff’s detective named Bill Stoner walked me through it. It was pure neck-prickle revelation. It was my mother and L.A.-then uncontainable. I knew I had to write the magazine piece into a book. I knew I had to reinvestigate my mother’s murder.
I hustled a book deal and cut Bill Stoner in for a percentage. We tracked my mother’s killer for a year and a half. We drove around and rediscovered L.A.
It was a brand-new L.A. The San Gabriel Valley redux. Still smog-smacked, still sun-seared, mucho multicultural now. New freeway loops, potent pollution, many mini-malls with nail nooks and Thai take-out.
We looped. We talked. We read file reports, ran interviews, cataloged clues. I discovered my mother, now more alive than dead. I began to love her for real. We did not find her killer. It didn’t matter. I found a portent of her. My collateral discovery was portents of L.A. now and then.
New migrations. Immigrants galore. Tailors, spice merchants, doughnut entrepreneurs. Dueling cuisines competing for mall space and Anglo appetites. Shift now to then. Note the period police-report snapshots. Big families crammed into small postwar pads. Sad and hopeful eyes. Real L.A. migrants, not the hyped-up fiends of my childhood.
I wrote the book and titled it “My Dark Places.” It was my mother’s life, my life, Bill Stoner’s. It was all real. It was my best shot at L.A. thusly. It was another media glut. I told my L.A. story 2,000 more times. Every retelling was a notch on forthcoming burnout.
The film version of “L.A. Confidential” was released. I told my L.A. story 2,000 more brain-broiling times.
I was pushing 50. I was defined by a sexy locale and two dead women. I ran from L.A. I feared its capacity to reinvent itself and render my work moribund. I ran to safe havens. I married women with L.A.-girl vibes. I bought houses that mimicked Hancock Park mansions. It never hit me: You can’t run, so why not succumb?
Momentum. Commitments booked past the millennium. Magazine contracts, film scripts, a new novel.
I was writing the sequel to “American Tabloid.” I was burning a warehouse of candles at both ends. I was fully determined to make “The Cold Six Thousand” the single greatest novel ever written and fully convinced that I could accomplish the task.
I was starting to lose it. Here’s a trip, there’s a stumble, beware of a fall.
My sleep was going sideways. Anxiety drove me back to my desk at all hours. I neglected my marriage and hid out in dark rooms. I neglected my friends and talked to my dog.
I finished the book in September 2000 and ran through rewrites all fall. My sleep went south. I’d contracted for a four-month book tour. Seven countries and 32 U.S. cities. I flew to Paris and dipped deep-south.
I couldn’t sleep. My mind would not shut off. I saw zits on my back and became convinced that they were malignant melanomas. I feared my own imminent death. “The Cold Six Thousand” was an international bestseller. I was at the height of my public recognition and going insane.
I couldn’t sleep. I got dizzy, I got ditzy, I did interviews with cold sweats. I did bookstore readings dead exhausted and never blew a line of text. I pulled my shirt off 50 times a day and scanned for lesions.
France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Great Britain. I drew big crowds, charmed them senseless and never blew a line of text. I started forgetting things. I walked into walls. I had sobbing fits in Chicago. I passed out flat in Milwaukee.
My wife made me come home. I returned to Kansas City in a heat wave. My mind looped obsessively. The suppressed crazy shit of my overlived lifetime oozed from my pores.
I’d see little kids with their pets and start weeping. I’d see news clips of Lou Gehrig and Ronald Reagan and lose it. I could not cut myself off from the world. All my compartments were sieves.
I saw a doctor. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills and sedatives. I gained momentary peace in drugged consciousness and doped sleep. My old addictive patterns surfaced. I got strung out. I wanted to lull my nerves to an acceptable roar. I wanted to sit alone in dark rooms. I wanted to regenerate myself in unconscious blackness.
My wife became my caretaker. The marriage hit the ropes. I took more and more pills. I dumped them for work stints and never wrote stoned. I wrote film scripts and magazine stories and put my new novel on hold. My novelist’s megalomania terrified me. I could not go back to my pure life’s work yet.
I felt unsafe. I could not regulate my internal chaos or sublimate it into art. Kansas City felt unsafe. I craved a physical safety zone. The West Coast beckoned. It should have been a clue. We moved to Carmel in July ’02. We bought a house and furnished it deluxe. It didn’t work. The marriage was down near the 10-count. Carmel was chilling and unsafe.
Yes, but L.A. was close.
Clues, portents, dream projections--
I drove down for frequent visits. I hid from my marriage and hung out with friends. I rocked behind L.A. ambivalence. I love you, I hate you, I need you. Please come here and now go away.
Destiny is often denial pushed to the breaking point. My dope use escalated. I OD’d three times in summer ’03. I took myself back to that rooftop terror. I fed off of it and learned from it and prayed to it. I went into a rehab program in August. I’ve been sober ever since.
I always survive. God gave me that skill. I’m an L.A. opportunist. My alchemist’s license was issued in L.A. I know how to turn dung into gold.
This essay is a travel document and a homecoming brief. It will stand as my final autobiographical statement. The gist is simple: My birthplace made me, I ran away, I ran back.
My wife and I divorced. My runner’s ways killed the marriage. I’ve been blessed with forgiveness tempered with humor. A steel-buffed friendship remains. The film version of “The Black Dahlia” comes out in September. I’m writing the sequel to “The Cold Six Thousand.” It will be my greatest novel yet. Opportunists enjoy bragging rights--if they deliver. I always have and always will.
It will be my last non-L.A. novel. From that point on, I’m a hometown writer exclusively.
I moved back to L.A. three weeks ago. It’s the only place I feel safe. I’ve got a slick pad near my old prowling turf and an arriviste sports car. I want to live here, I want to work here, I want to end my days here. I want the all-new and wholly familiar stimulation that only L.A. provides. I want to reclaim L.A. with a revitalized and mature imagination.
My old neighborhood is now Koreatown. My old market is a Korean church, my old neighborhood bar is a Korean supper club. I drove down Western Avenue this morning. Old buildings bore new facades. The signs were all Korean. I saw Korean folks queued up outside stores I used to loot. I want to know who they are and why they came here. I want them to thrive. I want them to grasp opportunity and render it with love.
--Los Angeles, 6/26/06
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