James Ellroy’s latest novel, This Storm, drops at the end of the month. Just in time, too. I’m in the mood for one of Ellory’s dark, jagged, Benzedrine-fueled rides through the neon-lit landscape of the American Century. I consider Ellroy one of the great ones — put him on a par with Cormac McCarthy. His ambitions are huge, both stylistically and thematically, his shtick can get tiresome, and he doesn’t always hit the mark — but, man, when he does, he blows out the x‑ring.
Being an LA boy — born by a river that was paved with cement — I was readily drawn into Ellroy’s depiction of that sunny, sordid land of illusion and desperate hustle. I consumed The Black Dahlia in a frenzied binge and moved immediately into LA Confidential, which I consider to be a masterpiece. But for me the pinnacle of Ellroy’s work came when he moved beyond Los Angeles to take on the salad days of the American Empire in American Tabloid.
Ellroy’s frontiers are different from the trails I usually haunt, but any explorer of borderlands history knows in his bones the truth contained in Ellroy’s legendary and oft-quoted opening to AT:
America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets. You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception.
Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed. Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight.
The real Trinity of Camelot was Look Good, Kick Ass, Get Laid. Jack Kennedy was the mythological front man for a particularly juicy slice of our history. He called a slick line and wore a world-class haircut. He was Bill Clinton minus pervasive media scrutiny and a few rolls of flab.
Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.
They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American History would not exist as we know it.
It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.
Here’s to them.
Ellroy needs these characters for the history he creates; he is a truly epic writer, attempting books that have the scale of myth and he needs mythic characters to bring that off.
Ellroy strips American history — really all history — of its innocence, which means he does it to us, too, the inheritors of that history. In the Enlightenment model of the freely choosing individual, we are all innocent; how could we not be? We are independent, choosing entities and those choices, nothing else, make our lives. Ellroy reminds us that to live in history, to live with history’s legacy, costs you your innocence. He writes about the creation of the modern world, and the violence and hate that bought whatever peace and ideals we have.
Ellroy’s beat is urban — the dazzling dark sunshine of LA and Cuban-exile-Miami, nightclubs and diners, precinct stations — but some of his rough men could have easily ridden in a previous era with John Joel Glanton’s gang of scalphunters in Northern Mexico (AT’s bagman and CIA asset Pete Bondurant actually goes on scalping raids in Cuba). Las Vegas, Nevada, c. 1958 isn’t really much different from Tombstone, Arizona, c. 1881.
I remarked to Marilyn the other night as we watched AMC’s Texas epic The Son that the dark protagonist Eli McCulloch is an Ellroyvian character — savagely traumatized in his youth, ruthless in adulthood, fully aware that he’s more than waist deep in the Big Muddy and (at least to appearances) giving zero fucks, despite the collateral damage that strews the blast radius of his compulsions and ambitions.
History is the raw material of myth and historical myth is weaponized for political purposes. Ellroy — like McCarthy — panders to neither the triumphalist faith that asserts the fundamental righteousness of the American project, nor the pearl-clutching moralizing that would pretend that we can have “whatever peace and ideals we have” without the underpinning of violence.
McCarthy once said that:
“There’s no such thing as life without bloodshed. I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea. Those who are afflicted with this notion are the first ones to give up their souls, their freedom. Your desire that it be that way will enslave you and make your life vacuous.”
Ellroy might say the same — in trademark scandal sheet style.
It may seem perverse, but there is a certain comfort to be found in understanding that we are all complicit in the sins of past and present, that we, the inheritors of history, are not and never can be innocent. The gap between our expectation of what life “should” be and what it actually is can create a crushing psychological burden. Recognizing that the fallen world is simply what it is allows us to forgive ourselves for being the frail and fallible creatures we are, allows us the grace of believing that doing what we can do just has to be good enough.
Because in James Ellroy’s mythic universe, those rogue cops and shakedown artists, wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers pay the price — one way or another — for a multitude of sins.
So, yeah, here’s to them.