That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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Posts Tagged ‘james ellroy’

I destroy those I cannot control.

Posted by kozemp on March 2, 2015

And so, we have reached the point in our narrative – or my narrative, at least, as though there were any other narrative I really cared about – where I make a direct artistic connection between James Ellroy and Bruce Springsteen, and stop at HP Lovecraft along the way, and the connections work, and I will heretofore be proclaimed as either genius, or madman, or both.

But we’re not quite there, not just yet.


Me and James Ellroy is a funny sort of story. I came to Ellroy through the movie version of LA Confidential. I distinctly remember, after seeing the movie, sitting in the food court at LaSalle with Tony Romero and talking about picking up the book it was based on and him saying – almost 20 years later I still remember his exact words – “I hear it’s a fucking tome.”

I had discovered crime fiction as a teenager with Andrew Vachss – which is a bit like discovering recreational drugs by drinking a shot glass of LSD – and became one of those people who gleefully dove into the black pit every chance I got because… you know, I don’t actually know why. It’s true that I did have a severe conservative/authoritarian streak when I was a teenager and early adult, but that got fixed a long time ago and I can still pick up Hammett or Chandler or Thompson or whoever and thoroughly enjoy myself. It’s weird, I suppose, but I can’t tell you why I like soccer either. So here we are with me as a… as a kid? A young adult? Is there a word for that 18-21ish age? Whatever you call that time when you’re 18-21ish, by then I was long since that kid who had a pathological need to read novels that movies I liked were based on. How many other kids my freshman year at Chestnut Hill do you think read Silence of the Lambs? I would hazard “not many.”

Fun fact: some internet sleuthing has revealed that LA Confidential was the second book I ever bought off Amazon – after Neuromancer, which surprises, I imagine, precisely no one.

Anyway, I bought and devoured LA Confidential, and again almost 20 years later it is still one of only two books where the last lines are seared into my brain forever. The others are the last lines of Gatsby, also surprising, I imagine, no one.

I was pretty blown away by the book, and who wouldn’t be? I was already head over heels in love with the movie, after all; moreso, possibly, than whatever demure, emotionally distant brunette I was also head over heels for at the time. (I legitimately cannot remember which one it was, but, yes, I am aware that I have a type.) The book is at once both this brutal distillation of the movie and a grandiose, exploded version of it. The core of the film and the book are still the same – Los Angeles as seductress, sunny exteriors and rotten insides at every turn, and good men doing bad things. There are some key differences, sure: the Ed Exley of the novel is a little more carefully drawn and deeply motivated (and much more a conniving schemer, if you can believe that). The story is a lot more expansive. The end is completely – and I mean COMPLETELY – different. And then there is the subplot in the book in which – I am not making this up – a thinly-veiled pastiche of Walt Disney is revealed as a serial child rapist and murderer.

Yeah. It’s James Ellroy. /shrug

Even with that – and in typical fashion for me I was so engrossed in the story I tended to blow through it to get the broad strokes as quickly as possible and I missed a lot of those details on the first read (aka A Song of Ice and Fire Syndrome) – once you get used to Ellroy’s… let’s charitably call it “unique” style, which doesn’t take long, the book has the same core strength that the movie does. The characters are so strong they practically leap off the page, and for all the weirdness of the language it is still incredibly evocative in an odd way. More than almost any writer I’ve ever come across Ellroy’s books have a FEEL to them that is practically indescribable and impossible to replicate. Ellroy’s books… they SEETHE in an almost Lovecraftian way, like dark, misshapen things you know are hideous but you can’t take your eyes off of.

So I read LA Confidential, and went gaga for it, and immediately said “OH SHIT MAN WHAT’S NEXT?!” and grabbed myself a copy of White Jazz and I was toast. Completely hooked. This despite the fact that in pure writing terms White Jazz is less a book and more a collection of frenzied ravings that make the complete works of Philip K. Dick look like a carefully-considered sermon. On a sentence for sentence level it is more or less unreadable, but somehow as it accumulates it still works as a whole, and it introduces Pete Bondurant, and it has what in deference to spoilers I will call “the thing Exley does at the end,” which fulfills the promise he makes at the end of LA Confidential (the book) in the most satisfying and reprehensible way possible.

I don’t mention Pete Bondurant in passing; he is one of the main characters in American Tabloid, which is one of my Top Five Favorite Books Ever*, so clearly the whole James Ellroy thing worked out pretty well for me.

The thing about Ellroy is that as he got older his books started to… is “change” the right word? Maybe “drift?” They are still recognizably James Ellroy, they couldn’t not be, but there was something more to them that became more pronounced as the Underworld trilogy rolled on. If you start with The Black Dahlia, a book that seems to be powered by nothing more than madness and sheer style, and then go through the Underworld books, you can see that there is this weirdly emotional core to them that gets stronger and stronger.

I’m not someone who will read books purely for style. If I were I would like… well, among other things, Philip K. Dick. But the books slowly undergo this metamorphosis until you get to the last twenty pages or so of Blood’s A Rover and find that you are reading this shockingly sentimental, almost maudlin ending. After years of books that run on a combination of anger and glee comes this thing that is about… regret? Deeply personal, private regret?

From James Ellroy?

The fuck?

Don’t get me wrong: this is a good thing. But one gets to the end of a James Ellroy novel, or one did up until that point, and expects shocking, bloody denoument, not the book quietly reminding you that the real point of all of this is to not end up a sad old man who wasted his life. To get that instead of what Exley does, or instead of Pete Bondurant waiting for the screaming to start, is one of those literary moments that is jarring and wonderful.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to Perfidia.

I had actually missed Perfidia when it first came out – I recall one of my last Facebook updates, in fact, to be a lament that Ellroy had a book out and that I had missed its release. These things come few and far between anymore; with the Underworld books coming out in 1995, 2001 and 2009, Ellroy is getting positively GRRM-esque in his old age. My outrageous to-read-pile, both digital and deadtree, wasn’t helping, but eventually I came to the conclusion that leaving James Ellroy unread for so long had become a crime of, one could say, Ellroyian proportions.

So I started Perfidia. And it started as one would expect. Bad cops. Loose women. Wall-to-wall decadence and villainy. One of the book’s main characters is Dudley Smith, which as one reviewer noted is basically like making one of your main characters the Devil. One-third of the book is a view from the inside of pure evil.

But then…

I don’t want to say something in the book turns, because there isn’t a page number you can point at (or a percentage count in my case, YMMV) and say, “aha! This is the paragraph where everything changes!” It isn’t a single paragraph or a chapter. I’m frankly not sure that it isn’t there from the start. But there came a point, maybe halfway through the book, where I read one chapter about Dudley and realized, “holy shit, this is so SAD.”

And once I twigged to that it was all I could see.

In classic James Ellroy fashion no one in this book is what they appear to be, but they’re not what they appear to be to the other characters. Ellroy here lets us into his characters’ heads more than I think he ever has, and we see exactly what they are from the start, and just JESUS I cannot get over the overwhelming sadness that permeates the whole thing. I mean, the book is called “Perfidia,” which ought to at least give some sort of clue what he’s after. And there is still plenty of the litany of horrors that forms the ground level of any Ellroy book. Alongside that, though, there is this deeply felt despair at the novel’s core that reaches out and touches so much of it, and is so artfully and powerfully rendered that you kind of wonder why Ellroy hasn’t always done it like this. Even Dudley Smith – fiendish, profoundly evil Dudley Smith – gets a backstory and an inner life that is almost sympathetic. Even the Devil, apparently, can have his heart broken.

And that’s what this book runs on. Instead of anger and glee, it’s melancholy and heartbreak. It’s still James Ellroy – there are murders and beatings and sleazy dealings enough to numb the most jaded crime reader – but now with the added bonus of making you kind of want to give the characters a hug and tell them everything will be okay. And the whole thing is part of this very odd sort of temporally-transcendent literary experience that is dependent on having consumed an entire oeuvre over a lot of years.

My old buddy Frans and I were once having a conversation about music, and I forget the exact beginning of the line of discussion but we somehow got onto Springsteen and he said, and I still also remember this one exactly, “I mostly like the more uplifting Bruce songs. You know, like The River.”

I said, I thought not unreasonably, “uh… what?”

Before he could begin another typically Frans-ish line of hilariously awful reasoning I interrupted him and said, “dude, do you seriously not know what that song’s about?”

“Sure I do,” he said. “It’s about – ”

“The guy in that song kills himself at the end,” I interrupted him again. “He goes to the dry riverbed to jump off the bridge and commit suicide in the last place he was ever happy. It’s, like, Springsteen’s least uplifting song ever.”

He gave me his preferred look of cautious disbelief. “Are you sure?”

“Trust me,” I said. “I’m sure.”

A few years later he listened to Live in New York City and told me, “well NOW I get what you were saying about The River, yeah.”

Reading Perfidia is a bit like hearing the version of The River that’s on Live in New York City. How it’s the same song, but it’s not. And how you kinda need the old song to appreciate the changes to the new one, but the new song is still amazing on its own.


Ellroy, Lovecraft, and Springsteen.

Told you I’d get there.


* The Great Gatsby and then in no particular order American Tabloid, Dune, Neuromancer, and Cryptonomicon.


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Gold stars. Alone with his dead.

Posted by kozemp on September 28, 2009

My desk is pretty awesome.

As bedroom furniture goes for the most part I am very lame. My bed is just a box spring and a mattress on a metal frame, my chest of drawers is a hideous old hand-me-down I can’t bring myself to get rid of, and my bookcases are Ikea standard issue. Until a few years ago my nightstand was – I am not making this up – an old Tandy XT monitor jammed into the top of a white milk crate. For the longest time I figured “oh, well, this monitor-stuck-in-a-milk-crate keeps my glasses and whatnot off the ground just as well as a fancy-schmancy ‘night table,’ so why shouldn’t I have this next to my bed? Oh, how droll and utilitarian and twentysomething I am!”

Of course, at some point when I was 28 or so I realized, as all intelligent folk do, that utilitarianism is a joke and John Stuart Mill is a fucking dickhead. I threw out the monitor-stroke-milk crate and resolved to keep my essentials on the corner of my desk. People like me who are largely blind without their glasses will recognize the need to place them, Leonard Shelby-like, in the same place every night. So now I keep my glasses and wallet and phone and whatnot on this one corner of my desk.

And this isn’t just any desk, mind you.

From the time I was approximately seven years old until about two years ago my desk was this ancient, mirror-topped mahogany behemoth I assume was scavenged from one of my mother’s dead relatives. This was how we obtained just about all of our furniture back then. Now bear in mind two important things at that time: 1) My parents were literally the age I am now, but with two kids and a mortgage living on the salary of a schoolteacher and a part-time optometrist. 2) In the entirety of my mother’s comically-abundant extended Irish family, by some cosmic demographic hiccup we were the ONLY new family with young kids. So every time someone died – which was quite often given the sheer quantity of family members – my parents would end up with their furniture because, “oh, John and Teresa need it.” This is why my father didn’t have a reliable car until he was 40 but we have three complete dining room sets, and why as a third-grader I was given a gigantic antique for a desk.

Over the next twenty years or so I would proceed to beat the living shit out of this desk, and when I started going back to school a couple years ago I realized I needed a place to both put my computer and do homework and that my desktop wasn’t big enough for that. (The lack of such realization perhaps explaining some of my poor academic performance beforehand.) I also realized that the mirror that was the top of my desk was sufficiently cracked and broken such that if I slipped while typing my hands would be sliced off at the wrists.

So with much sadness I disposed of my old desk. My sadness ended when I proceeded to replace it with something that looked like it came from the bridge of the JJ Abrams Enterprise. This desk DOES NOT FUCK AROUND. It is acres of polished glass held up by gleaming black metal in a way that at first glance seems to defy the laws of physics. It is awesomely L-shaped so that I have, essentially, an entire desk for my computer and another entire desk for homework and reading and whatnot, with a third smaller desk in between usually reserved for laptops of dubious purpose. It has got LEVELS: one side of it has an entire second story. My desk is what you would get if you force-fed mescaline to Frank Lloyd Wright and then chained him to a drafting table and held a gun to his head while shouting: “a desk, Frank, MAKE US A FUCKING DESK!”

At the moment a significant portion of it is covered with half-painted Space Marines and a forest of medicine bottles.

For the longest time I tried to keep some order to the medicine bottles, to maintain a sort of straight line that I could go down as I needed to, but as I grew more and more resentful of the fact that I take so many goddamn pills every semblance of order faded and now there are just bottles all over the place. For the back: Neurontin, Vicodin. For the liver: Vitamin E, Milkthistle, Ursodiol. For emergencies/special occasions: Dilaudid. Now that one, that’s special. Dilaudid is what your body turns morphine into. It is wicked bad juju. When I first got the prescription my pharmacist told me, “okay, basically, never take this stuff. It will erase the world.” Since then I’ve taken it three times when the pain in my back flared to a point where I was unable to successfully prosecute my day to day life. My pharmacist’s warnings were not inaccurate. I’m going to hold on to the rest of it and give the pills out as Christmas presents; the nicer you are to me between now and then the more you’ll get.

This weekend I was down with a cold and added some NyQuil to the menagerie. My love of NyQuil borders on abuse, and not even for its alcohol content: taken at half-dosage it is the only medicine I have ever found that actually relieves my symptoms when I have a cold, and as a sufferer of chronic anxious insomnia a full dose is one of the few things guaranteed to put me to sleep. At one point this Saturday I was sitting at my awesome desk, taking my NyQuil, and as I put the bottle down it landed next to the Dilaudid. I thought, “I wonder what would happen if I mixed them,” and then realized that thoughts like that bring me dangerously closer to being a character in a James Ellroy novel. The fact that I am currently reading a James Ellroy novel probably contributed to that realization, but I stuck with that line of thought for a little. Well, let’s think, what would that be like?

I mentally composed a list of pros and cons.

Pros: an authority figure of some sort (police, FBI, etc). Get to hobnob with interesting underworld types and make lots of money. Get to experiment with heretofore unknown combinations of drugs and alcohol. Get to have sex with (inexplicably lots of) interesting women. Free to regularly indulge darkest, basest, vilest desires. Witty yet realistic dialogue.

Cons: complicity in most heinous acts of the 20th century. Tendency for every associate to be evil scumbag. Utter moral bankruptcy.

As I sat there at my awesome desk, I felt the delicious warmth of red NyQuil seeping into my tissues and I thought, “tough call, tough call…”


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