Saturday, July 18, 2015

Early Ellroy, politics, and perspective

I've been reading James Ellroy's earlier work, first The Big Nowhere (1988), second novel in the L.A. Quartet; and now Because the Night (1984), second of Ellroy's three Lloyd Hopkins novels, and Clandestine, a standalone novel from 1982. Here are some highlights, first from Clandestine:
"She was starting to like me, so I couldn’t bring myself to tell her she was nuts."
"I laid on the more gentle, picaresque side of police work: the friendly drunks, the colorful jazz musicians in their zoot suits, the lost puppies Wacky and I repatriated to their youthful owners. I didn’t tell her about the rape-o’s, the abused kids, the stiffs at accident scenes or the felony suspects who got worked over regularly in the back rooms at Wilshire Station. She didn’t need to hear it. Idealists like Sarah, despite their naiveté, thought that the world was basically a shit place. I needed to temper her sense of reality with some of the joy and mystery. There was no way she could accept that the darkness was part of the joy. I had to do my tempering Hollywood-style."
Hindsight is perfect, of course, but it's easy to see in that first the line a microcosm of Ellroy's transition from something like conventional hard-boiled to the harsher and weirder stuff that he would write later. That "nuts" hits pretty hard.

For that matter, the second selection is, in retrospect, transitional, too.  The passage reads as if its narrator, a young cop, is just talking about the sort of violence and corruption into which later Ellroy protagonists would plunge headfirst and wholeheartedly.

Meanwhile, over at The Big Nowhere, the following suggests that for all Ellroy's gleeful proclamation that he is the White Knight of the Far Right, his books set in the 1950s poke far more serious fun at anti-Communist witch-hunt madness than it does at fellow travelers:
"A flick of the overhead light; the living room jarring white— walls, tables, cartons, shelves and odd mounds of paper— Loew and company’s once-in-a-lifetime shot at the political moon. Graphs and charts and thousands of pages of coerced testimony. Boxes of photographs with linked faces to prove treason. A big fuckload of lies glued together to prove a single theory that was easy to believe because believing was easier than wading through the glut of horseshit to say, `Wrong.'”
Not that he loved those fellow travelers:
"Hollywood writers and actors and hangers-on spouting cheap trauma, Pinko platitudes and guilt over raking in big money during the Depression, then penancing the bucks out to spurious leftist causes. People led to Lesnick’s couch by their promiscuity and dipshit politics.

"Deluded.

"Stupid.

"Selfish."

© Peter Rozovsky 2015

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15 Comments:

Blogger R.T. said...

Peter, I've been putting off reading Ellroy. I'm not sure that I am yet persuaded. You seem not to be recommending him. But perhaps I simply have not read your posting properly.

BTW, Crimes in the Library, my crime-detective-mystery fiction blog has been reactivated. Even though today's posting is something from beyond the genre, perhaps you will (now and then) find something at CITL to interest you.

Now, I will browse my library from some early Ellroy. I might as well give him a chance.

July 18, 2015  
Blogger Kent Morgan said...

I enjoyed two of the Lloyd Hopkins paperbacks and have a copy of Clandestine somewhere. I also liked The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential, but some of his later books that got mixed reviews are taking up space on a book shelf that could be put to better use. Maybe it's time to donate them to a charity sale as I know I will never read them.

July 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: I have linked to Crimes in the Library in by blog roll.

You may be misreading my posts, though not severely. I thought The Big Nowhere fell short of some of the Ellroy I had read previously, but I like Clandestine more the more I read of it. Ellroy's early novels require a bit of adjustment if one as read his later work first, but it does not take long to realize that similar themes are at the heart of both.

July 18, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kent, I presume you have The Cold Six Thousand and American Tabloid in mind, I think those are his best work, though I obviously like some of the earlier stuff, too. By the time one gets to Blood's a Rover, one realizes that (as I mentioned just above) the underlying themes of the later books and the earlier ones tend to be similar: What happened to flawed young idealists when their idealism confronts their ambition.

I did not get far with The Cold Six Thousand the first time I tried it. But I picked it up again years later and loved it. I guess I learned go with the odd verbal rhythms and the wordplay they are possible. And it contains some terrific deadpan humor:

H(oward) H(ughes): Only Mormons and FBI men have clean blood.

W(ard) J, L(it \tell): I'm not much of an expert on blood, Sir.

HH: I am. You know the law, and I know aerodynamics, blood and germs.

WJL: We're experts in our separate fields, Sir.

July 18, 2015  
Anonymous Mary Beth said...

I haven't read any of James Ellroy, but I look forward to reading his books. It should be refreshing to read a book that probably doesn't contain one politically correct sentence and totally unfiltered opinions.

July 19, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If non-political correctness is what you want, Ellroy is the place to start.

You didn't ask for recommendations, but I'd say L.A. Confidential might be a good place to start. It represents something like what makes Ellroy different from other writers, but it does not go the stylistic extremes of American Tablid andThe Cold Six Thousand, which might be a bit much to start with.

July 19, 2015  
Anonymous Matthew Hewitt said...

For me, all of his earlier books are good at the very least, even Killer on the Road (an atypical first-person serial killer novel) and the middle (lesser) Hopkins novel. They all have their own unique imperfections, to a lesser or greater degree, and are the works of a writer still finding himself, but they do share a very raw and genuinely deranged energy that got diluted (and you could say synthesized) the longer he remained sober. There's also none of the sense that he's trying too hard to be a smart-ass that you get later on, either.

For me, the quartet stands as his true masterpiece (and should be read in sequence given the shared threads); written on the crest of super-stardom and still with access to his demons, after he'd refined his craft but before he became a 'personality' and merely doing what was expected of him. And while I appreciate that many people think American Tabloid was his high-water point, to me it was the beginning of the end, as it was the first one he wrote aware of his own reputation and status. Having said that, My Dark Places (published between Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand), is truly excellent - part memoir and part true-crime book about his investigation into the unsolved murder of his mother, it gives terrific insight into the man and the world that gave birth to him.

July 20, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...

The first Ellroy I read was THE COLD SIX THOUSAND. Don't ever do that. Seriously. Since then everything I've read has caught me up in its world as few other writers can. I'm working my way through the LA Quartet now (reading about a book a year), and will probably re-read the trilogy in order to see if my increased exposure and improved context makes TC6K a more enjoyable read.

I've always thought of Ellroy's writing as promoting a left-of-center sympathy, to some extent. Those on the left generally come across as misguided boobs to be made fun or, but it's the righties he savages as being truly cynical and evil. Look at his treatment of J. Edgar Hoover and Highes, as well as their minions.

July 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew: Clandestine is the earliest Ellroy novel I’ve read. One big difference between it and later books is that its last sentence includes the word redemption. Later Ellroy novels spread redemption and the possibility thereof more subtly through the books.

I don’t know enough about his sobriety to be able to correlate it with his literary production. Do you figure he was drinking when he wrote American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and the Danny Getchell stories?

A high could very well be the beginning of the end, couldn’t it, and maybe is so by definition.

The remarks about Ellroy’s being a personality and doing what is expected of him are interesting, too. I have now heard him read or speak three times, and the second time, especially, I got the feeling that he was doing the schtick that he thought his audience expected, but that his heart was not really in it. It will be interesting to see if shucking the schtick has anything to do with how his next few novels look.

July 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Ellroy’s promotion of himself as the White Knight of the Far Right has long been (or used to be, anyway) part of his schtick. He is also a supporter of the Los Angeles Police Museum, and he has spoken fondly of Ronald Reagan. I think this fools people into thinking him a conservative.

You’re dead on about his treatment of left-wingers and right-wingers. I don’t think his political sympathies, at least as expressed in his fiction, break on neat left-right lines. He portrays JFK as an amiable boob who can’t even last that long in bed, but expresses admiration for RFK and Martin Luther King. I think he’s fascinated by driven men, of whatever political persuasion, whether or not those characters go over the edge into mania, as does Dudley Smith.

July 20, 2015  
Blogger Dana King said...

"I think he’s fascinated by driven men, of whatever political persuasion, whether or not those characters go over the edge into mania, as does Dudley Smith. "

Well put. Much as I'd love to extend this discussion with some pithy interjections of my own, I think you've won the last word here.

July 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Let's sling some words again once we've each read a bit more Ellroy.

July 20, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

The other class of men he writes about (and maybe identifies with) are those who get drawn along in the wake of those drive nuts.

July 20, 2015  
Anonymous Matthew Hewitt said...

Peter, my understanding is that he has remained sober since the early 1980's - so Tabloid and Six Thousand were almost certainly written without chemical influence. My point was more that the experiences he had due to substance abuse (homelessness and brushes with petty crime - he survived largely by living in a b-movie and pulp novel inspired fantasy world) were what drove those early works and give them a naked honesty, as they were still fresh in his mind. Whereas the later books are over-burdened with research and structure.

As to his new L.A prequel sequence, they're the final nail in the coffin of his reputation AFAIC and the mark of a true sell-out. He said he'd never go back there, that he was done with 'crime fiction' and that he was now a 'serious' writer. Personally, I'd rather he'd stuck to crime in the first place, but this just smacks of desperation, like when more conventional writers dust-off a much loved detective due to 'popular demand' (i.e to recoup the cost of their last divorce).

July 21, 2015  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Matthew, I'll get a wider perspective on this question once I've a few more of his early books. I would suggest, though, that if his early experiences drove his early works, he was able to carry the energy to a bigger historical stage at least through the first two Underworld USA novels.

July 21, 2015  

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