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Lecture Review: James Ellroy

Marion Ettlinger
James Ellroy, author of Crime Wave.
By Tzu-Mainn Chen

On the back of James Ellroy's latest book, Crime Wave(Vintage Books, 288 pages, $12), the publisher describes the collection as "written in prose as wounding as an ice pick." Those who have sampled Ellroy's stories know that this description is apt: He writes clearly and forcefully, frequently repeating words and phrases until they stab straight into the mind.

Ellroy looks like a man who might very well decide to take after somebody with an ice pick himself. In the photo on the inside of Crime Wave, he is a large, intimidating presence, hunched forward with eyes glaring up at the viewer. After seeing this picture, one can easily understand how Ellroy received the moniker of "Demon Dog of American Literature."

His first novel, Brown's Requiem, was published in 1981. Since then, he has written ten other novels dealing with crime and corruption, including L.A. Confidential, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film.

He has also written a memoir, My Dark Places, about his mother's unsolved murder, which happened in 1958 when Ellroy was only ten. At that time, his parents were divorced, and despite his desire to stay with his father, Ellroy was forced to live with his mother for the majority of each week. As a result, he grew to resent and even hate Jean Ellroy. Her death was initially a relief, an act which finally gave him the freedom to move in with his idolized father.

However, Ellroy gradually came to realize that his life was being molded by his mother, whether he liked it or not. His obsession with crime can be easily traced back to his mother's death. "My mother's murder mandated my intellectual agenda for the next forty years," he told me during our interview. As for his father? "I became disillusioned with my father over time," Ellroy said. "I understood that he was a pathological liar. He doesn't have much allure for me, he doesn't hold any surprises."

His father died when Ellroy was seventeen. Ellroy was already a high school dropout, and he had just dropped out of the army as well. His life quickly spiraled downwards in a whirlwind of drugs and alcohol. He was evicted from several apartments, committed petty crimes, and ended up doing some time in jail. Finally, in 1975, Ellroy was nearly driven insane through drug overuse. It was then that he decided it was time to clean up.

"I'm happy with the way things turned out," he said. "I turned my life around when I was 29 years old." The cynicism that can be found in his books isn't in him. He told me, "There was a leftist pundit, I think, who once said Who are we to give up hope?' I'm a hopeful... very happily married guy who tries hard to live a decent life."

On Monday evening, the night of Ellroy's reading, I saw a large group of people standing in Lobby 10, looking up at a television screen that, for the moment, was flashing a black-and-white advertisement for Networks. I found out later that these were people who had failed to arrive early enough to fit either in the lecture hall where Noam Chomsky was scheduled to speak, or in the overflow room that had been allocated for that talk. As a result, these people were forced to wait for Chomsky's speech to appear on MITV.

Ellroy's reading was well-attended, but at nowhere near the full capacity of 26-100. No matter; immediately after being introduced by Associate Dean Perelman, Ellroy strode to the blackboard. He picked up a piece of dark pink chalk and proceeded to write in proud letters, "Ellroy Rules! Chomsky Drools!" The audience cheered wildly. That set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Ellroy extolled the virtues of his books in a manner not unlike that of a quack doctor preaching his wares. "These books cure AIDS!" he shouted. "These books cure cancer, the common cold and the creeping crud!" Holding up a copy of Crime Wave, he promised, "If each and every one of you buy one thousand copies of this book, you will be able to have unlimited sex with each and every person on this Earth that you desire, every night for the rest of your lives!"

Next, Ellroy read an excerpt from Tijuana, Mon Amour, one of the novellas that can be found in Crime Wave. Taking place in the '50s, the satirical story is narrated by Danny Getchell, the fictional editor-in-chief of a sleazy Hollywood tabloid named Hush-Hush. Ellroy's grandiose and booming voice matches that of Getchell perfectly, perhaps because both are exquisite performers who know how to grab attention. When Ellroy finished reading from his excerpt, he flung the book carelessly aside and raised his arms like a career politician after a speech. The audience burst into tumultuous applause.

Crime Wave is a collection of stories and essays that were published in GQ magazine between 1993 and 1999. The book is divided up into four sections, the first which is titled Unsolved. It contains three non-fictional essays, each detailing the investigation of a different unsolved murder, including that of Ellroy's mother. Ellroy describes each case in a detached and clinical fashion, creating a stark depiction of the harrowing nature of police work. Ellroy makes sure readers understand what happened in each unsolved crime. As a result, he makes it very easy for readers to grasp his own obsession with his mother's death.

The second section is titled Getchell. It contains two stories, Hush-Hush and Tijuana, Mon Amour, set in a fictionalized version of L.A. in the '50s. Getchell is the caricaturized anti-hero of both, telling tales of corruption among the celebrities of that era. His style of narration is more than distracting; Getchell has a nasty habit of thinking in alliterative form, with lines such as, "The truth is my moral mandate. Dirt digs define my devotion to that difficult discipline." It may be difficult for some readers to slog through the sticky morass of words. But if one can accomplish that, what's left are two highly entertaining stories that sketch out an alternative world where everyone in L.A. has gone comically insane with greed.

Contino is the third section, and contains an essay and novella. The essay, "Out of the Past," relates the true history of Dick Contino, who, in 1947, at the age of seventeen, found national fame as an accordion player. His reputation was tarnished, however, when he was drafted into the Korean War and fled boot camp out of pure, simple fear. Contino did eventually make it over to Korea, but, the damage had been done. After the war, he never again regained his full celebrity status.

Ellroy, who faked his way out of army service shortly before the Vietnam War, latched onto Contino as a key to his own past. The result is Hollywood Shakedown, which fictionalizes Contino as its hero. Shakedown contains a much different atmosphere than any of the Getchell stories; this world is darker and more serious in tone. Unlike Getchell, Contino is a three-dimensional character, and through his explorations, Ellroy again manages to travel the corrupt side of Hollywood.

The final section is titled L.A., and contains scathing indictment of O.J. Simpson, a wonderfully human look into the workings of the Homicide Department of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, an article about the filming of the movie adaptation of L.A. Confidential, and an affectionate look back at Ellroy's junior high school, which he describes as "my own Camelot." The essays are written with a great deal of passion, and it is very clear that Ellroy has accomplished more than a simple recounting of fact; imbued in each essay are pieces of Ellroy himself.

But this should come as no surprise. Whether speaking or writing, James Ellroy is a direct man who allows his actions to be honestly driven by strong emotion. "The Demon Dog of American Literature" is not a sham. Neither are his stories, and in that fact lies their power.