Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Heartbreak On the Margins: A Manual For Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin, edited by Stephen Emerson

I always like to say to those who haven't had the pleasure of reading Lucia Berlin's stories, that doing so will, in all likelihood, break your heart. At the same time, I do sort of envy anyone coming upon her stories for the first time. To discover  a writer of her ilk doesn't happen very often. No matter that she has been neglected, or, at any rate, a well-kept secret for far too long. I guess my discovery of Berlin's work came at some point in the mid-1980s through small press editions of her work by the likes of Turtle Island, Poltroon and Tombouctou Books. Naturally, I immediately fell in love with her writing. Re-reading those stories as well as the few I hadn't previously come across that comprise A Manual for Cleaning Women, edited by Stephen Emerson, makes me admire her work all the more. Because what's more than apparent is that these stories come straight from the heart, and can be simultaneously humorous, sad and touching.  "I don't mind telling people awful things if I can make them funny," says one of her narrators. Not to mention her voice, range and subject matter.

Born in Alaska in1936, Berlin, over the years, led a somewhat peripatetic existence, moving from Idaho, Montana, and Texas, to Chile, New Mexico, Berkeley and Denver. Her stories follow a similar path, with protagonists, most of which are thinly-disguised versions of herself, trying to find a place in the world, gravitating, by choice or circumstances, towards the margins and those who inhabit that space. Because it's a place where friendship and community come cheek-to-jowl with isolation and exploitation, these stories and vignettes, revolving around cleaning women, hospital workers, the poor, struggling mothers alcoholics, the physically deformed, take place in landscapes and conditions Berlin knew all too well, having spent years struggling with alcoholism and other maladies. Even in the earliest stories, for which I have to admit I harbour a preference if only because those happen to be my personal point of discovery, Berlin's voice, range and eye for detail is more than apparent. Take Angel's Laundromat: "Traveling people go to Angel's. Dirty mattresses, rusty high chairs tied to the roofs of dented old Buicks. Leaky oil pans, leaky canvas water bags. Leaky washing machines. The men sit in the cars, shirtless, crush Hamm's cans when they're empty." Or Manual For Cleaning Women- "The bus is late. Cars drive by. Rich people in cars never look at people on the street. Poor ones always do...in it sometimes seems they're just driving around, looking at people on the street. I've done that. Poor people wait a lot. Welfare, unemployment lines, laundromats, phone booths, emergency rooms, jails, etc.." Over the years, while her voice remains pretty much the same, her range increases, while her eye becomes increasingly observant and accurate:
We sold chances everywhere. Hotels and the train stations, the USO, Juarez. But even neighbourhoods were magic. You walk down a street, past houses and yards, and sometimes in the evening you can see people eating or sitting around and it's a lovely glimpse of how people live. Hope and I went inside hundreds of houses. Seven years old, both funny-looking in different ways, people liked us and were kind to us. "Come in. Have some lemonade." We saw four Siamese cats who used the real toilet and even flushed it. We saw parrots and one five-hundred pound person who had not been out of the house for twenty years. But even more we liked all the pretty things: paintings and china shepherdesses, mirrors, cuckoo clocks and grandfather clocks, quilts and rugs of many colors. We liked sitting in Mexican kitchens full of canaries, drinking real orange juice and eating pan dulce. Hope was so smart, she learned Spanish from listening around the neighbourhood, so she could talk to the old women. (Silence)

The only reason I have lived so long is that I let go of my past. Shut the door on grief on regret on remorse. If I let them in, just one self-indulgent crack, whap, the door will fling open gales of pain ripping through my heart blinding my eyes with shame breaking cups and bottles knocking down jars shattering windows stumbling bloody on spilled sugar and broken glass terrified gagging until with a final shudder and sob I shut the heavy door. Pick up the 
pieces one more time. (Homing)


Or perhaps it's her uncanny ability to juggle time, place and emotion in a montage that's more literary than cinematic. In a sense, she, like fellow story writer extraordinaire Lydia Davis- who. along with Emerson, contributes a welcome and perceptive introduction to this volume- shares an eye and sensibility with a certain strand of modernist poetry. Not surprising, then, that the poet Ed Dorn was one of her biggest advocates, as was Robert Creeley. Of course, there will be comparisons with widely read writers like Paley and Carver. But Berlin is different from either. Less in her avoidance of chat than her tendency towards the particular, exposing the general only when it becomes, as in the story Good and Bad- so obvious it hardly needs stating:
At first the place seemed to be deserted, miles and miles of dunes. Dunes of stinking, smoldering garbage. After a while, through the dust and smoke, you could see that there were people all over the dunes. But they were the color of the dung, their rags just like the refuse they crawled in. No one stood up, they scurried on all fours like wet rats, tossing things into burlap bags that gave them humped animal backs, circling on, darting, meeting each other, touching noses, slithering away, disappearing like iguanas over the ridges of the dunes. But once the food was set up scores of women and children appeared, sooty and wet, smelling of decay and rotted food. They were glad for the breakfast, squatted, eating with bony elbows like praying mantis on the garbage hills. After they had eaten, the children crowded around me, still crawling or sprawled in the dirt, they patted my shoes, ran their hands up and down my stockings.
And because she has an affinity for those down on their uppers, whether due to illness, lack of money, excessive drinking, soured relationships or fate, her work is even grittier and more determined than Carver's. There's no posturing here, just the elusive reality of everyday life viewed from awkward angles. Perhaps a more apt comparison might be with Fielding Dawson, whose near-perfect stories from the late 1950s through the 1970s were similar in their pursuit of the autobiographical, whether real, invented or simply tweaked by a fertile imagination.  "I exaggerate a lot," says another of Berlin's narrators, "and I get fiction and reality mixed up, but I don't actually ever lie." Yet, for better or worse, Berlin's stories are not as psychological, intense or stylised. In the end, Berlin's stories live in their own circumscribed world and sphere of influence. Davis is correct to point to Berlin's pacing, her naming and her sensitivity to language. That Lucia Berlin should be widely read is obvious, hopefully this elegant and overdue volume will make that possible.

For more information, including a short biography and plenty of photographs, see the Lucia Berlin website. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Please Mr. Postman: Meanwhile There Are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald, ed by Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan

I was just finishing Kevin Avery's excellent biography of  critic Paul Nelson when, appropriately enough, Meanwhile, There Are Letters, covering  the ten-year plus correspondence between Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (Kenneth Millar), arrived through my letter-box. Appropriate, because Nelson was, like Welty, a long-time advocate of Macdonald's work, having met the writer at his home in Santa Barbara where he arrived in 1976 to conduct one of those interminable interview sessions, this one lasting a week, for which Nelson was so famous.

Appropriate also, because Nelson, writing in the early 1960s, was the first person I'd come across who dared to cite the likes of Chandler, Hammett and, later, Macdonald, as constituting an important strand of American cultural life, tied inextricably to other strands, whether (the Harry Smith Anthology, Woody Guthrie, string band music, jazz, etc.), film (John Ford, Godard, Sturges) or art (Robert Rauschenberg, Pollock).


I don't know if I was actually introduced to Macdonald's work  through Welty's review of The Underground Man that ran in the New York Times back in 1971, a review that also brought Macdonald to the "legitimate" reading  public, and also an event that more or less kick-starts Marrs and Nolan's excellent collection. I think I probably had read  Macdonald before that review appeared, but Welty's piece probably turned what had been a guilty pleasure into what would eventually become a literary pursuit. As mentioned, I'd already been reading Hammett, Chandler and Himes, though perhaps it was simply a case of not being sure I was meant to be quite so obsessed with those writers and their work.  I don't know if Welty's article legitimised that pursuit, but it certainly widened the parameters by which I could appreciate such writing.

The letters that comprise this volume are further evidence to the manner in which those strands of the culture that Nelson had been referring to all those years ago, have played out. Thanks to Tom Nolan's previous ground-breaking biography of Macdonald, I knew of the Millar-Welty correspondence, but, until this volume, had never fully appreciated the depth or scope of it. What begins has a simple exchange of fan letters quickly blossoms into something entirely different. These letters, which of course often crossed paths and took several days to reach their cross-continent destination, addressed a range of literary subjects- both shared a love for Ford Maddox Ford, Elizabeth Bowen and Fitzgerald- and themes, not to mention personal matters, including tragedies like the death of the Millars' daughter, and politics, whether the war in Vietnam, Welty's obsession with Watergate or her White House meeting with Nixon (she hated having to shake his hand).

To intensify matters, Millar and Welty met face-to-face on only a few rare occasions. Not only were they separated by geography- Macdonald in Santa Barbara, Welty in Jackson, Mississippi- but by genre- Welty a recognised "literary" writer, Millar a crime writer by default who, to paraphrase, sought to work in the depths of darkness, to work  his way up to the light- and personal circumstances-  Millar was married, uneasily yet committed, to Margaret, a well-known crime writer in her own right, while Welty was single.

A platonic but passionate love-affair at long distance, the correspondence last over a decade, halted only when Millar contracted Altzheimers- the symptoms  he first encountered while  trying to recall events during Nelson's marathon interview- and even then Welty continued to write in the hope of jogging her friend's memory. In all, it was extraordinary correspondence relationship, as innocent as it was intimate. While it might surprise some that Millar had such wide literary tastes, serious Macdonald readers will be familiar with not only his knockabout youth and subsequent obsession with fathers, but that he possessed a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Coleridge,  humane politics, environmental concerns and a range of interests, much of which surfaced in his fiction. At the same time, Ross Macdonald readers might be surprised  that Welty, as well as being a renown writer of stories and novels, was an excellent photographer, who had worked for the WPA, with at least two volumes of photos to her credit.










"In the deepest sense we could never be out of touch," writes Welty towards the end of Millar's life. While Millar was suffering, his wife, Margaret, was  having health problems of her own. Aware of the depth of her husband's relationship with Welty, Margaret could often be cruel and cutting in her comments, not only to her husband but to Welty, saying at one point, "When Ken is away, of course I open your letters to him, but only to see if there's anything in them he needs to be informed about." Welty adds, " I don't know why she told me that, but- I don't think she'd have ever found anything in any of them to give her pause." The final Welty letters are heartbreaking. Likewise, her  story, Henry, which appears as an Afterword, and alludes to Millar's condition and her feelings towards him. Any serious reader of Ross Macdonald or Eudora Welty can't fail to appreciate this volume, for which we not only have Macdonald and Welty to thank, but Suzanne Marrs and Tom Nolan who painstakingly put together this illuminating collection. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Post-9/11 Noir: The Good Physician by Kent Harrington

Published in 2008, Kent Harrington's The Good Physician is arguably the best of the post-9/11 crime novels. The author of two contemporary noir classics, Dia de Los Muertos and Red Jungle, Harrington is adept at creating believable characters and ever-tightening plots in which choices are gradually narrowed down to their existential essentials.

That Harrington opted to publish The Good Physician with Dennis McMillan's rather than try his luck with a mainstream publisher, is interesting in itself. I don't know if that was a conscious choice on Harrington's part, though it wouldn't surprise me to learn the book might have been too hot for mainstream publishers. It's not that it's politically radical, though it is radically humane. As Michael Connelly says in his touching afterward, "The book has a painter's soul and a terrorist's conscience...[Don't] we wish we all had the same journey, to a place where one choice could vanquish all the wrong we have done before it."


The Good Physician centres on a young doctor, Collin, who, after 9/11, wants to make a contribution to the war on terrorism, so signs up as a CIA doctor in Mexico City. There he is called to witnesses various acts of torture, which, as a doctor, he can't abide. In fact, all Collin really wants to do is paint. At the hotel where he lives in true artist fashion, he falls in love with a woman who has suffered an immense loss and is ready to pay the ultimate price while, at the same time, inflict the ultimate damage for her loss. At the same time, the doctor is also treating the wife of the head of the CIA office in Mexico. That man, Alex, who also appears in Red Jungle, The American Boys and Harrington latest The Rat Machine, is effectively Collin's boss. Not without a degree of humanity, he has, through the work he does, become hardened to everyone other than his wife.  When reports have come in that a bomb is passing through Mexico into the US, and Alex and his fellow agent have to stop it, and will do just about anything to do so.

One can imagine Hammett, had he lived into the 21st century, perhaps writing a book like this. It's world-weary like Hammett, but not cynical. It's about loss, but not without hope.  And, of course, it's also one of the best noir-oriented novels I've read for a quite a while. I'm only seven years behind the curve on this one,  but it was worth the wait. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

FROM PARANOIA TO THE CONTRARY: PLOTTING THE NOIR WORLD OF JAMES ELLROY


(Keynote talk at University of Liverpool's  James Ellroy: Visions of Noir,  July 2nd, 2015)










From Paranoia to the Contrary is, I think, an apt title in that it goes some way to describing Ellroy’s evolution as a writer, one that is, of course, far from complete. It also implies a path that goes from portraying and critiquing the more deranged elements of the culture to something approaching a kind of iconoclasm. Which isn’t to say that Ellroy these days is simply smashing icons, but, for me, he isn’t as in the pocket as he once was, at least when it comes to covering the more paranoid extremes of the political and cultural terrain. Perhaps that’s the result of complacency, or maybe it’s what happens when a writer is co-opted by Hollywood. Or it could simply be that this is a different era, one which calls for a slightly different mode of enquiry and attack. And, of course, it could partly be the result of Ellroy’s inherent contrariness, his grandiose claims and hilarious, I’m just fucking with you attitude. Nevertheless, Ellroy, moving between the personal and the political, is, even at his least effective, more than capable of shedding light on the culture, whether charting the noir history of L.A., with its corruption and sleaze, or uncovering the stories behind the stories of significant national events, from JFK’s assassination to the founding of Las Vegas, events which Ellroy tends to portray as competing conspiracies fighting for dominance. But to get an inkling of how Ellory’s work has moved from the Paranoid to the Contrary, one has to venture beyond the hype and the contrarian attitude, to tease out the helter-skelter evolution of his novels.  

If you weren’t around in the early 1980s, it’s difficult to comprehend the impact Ellroy’s work had when it first appeared, at least on readers desperate for high stakes crime fiction in keeping with historical fact and fiction, as well as what was going on in both the streets and the suites. Remember, back then culturally engaged crime writers were fairly thin on the ground. Suddenly there was James Ellroy, who, from Clandestine and the Lloyd Hopkins books (Blood On the Moon, Suicide Hill, Because the Night) to the L.A. Quartet, would make  the most significant revision of the genre since Chandler, one that stands in sharp contrast to the whodunnit, the police procedural, the social investigations of Ross Macdonald, and the hardboiled private-eye narratives written by various descendants of the Black Mask school. To come across Ellroy back then was to encounter a writer far more political than he’s given credit for then or now, probably because he was able to deflect that particular interpretation by proclaiming his rightwing credentials. Which only proves that he was already on the road to becoming a politically incorrect contrarian. Political, if nothing else, because those early novels spoke directly to male anxieties, particularly when it comes to women, and the degree to which America was becoming an increasingly violent and paranoid place, with women more often than not the object of that violence and paranoia.

When Brown's Requiem appeared in 1981, Reagan was in the White House, and supply-side economics was about to take a deep and lasting bite into everyone’s lives.  By the final book in the L.A. Quartet, White Jazz, in 1992, Clinton was set to assume power, accompanied by proclamations of tough love, and the institutionalisation of that ruse known as trickle-down economics. You can sense something of that transition in the increasing paranoia of Ellroy’s subject matter and his writing as it moved from the strictly linear to its more fragmented counterpart. And although he was writing about an era three or four decades in the past, he was also, regardless of how he claimed to live out of time, writing about the present: two eras separated by a common pursuit of corruption, sleaze and the psychotic desire for power. It’s also important to note that the period from Brown’s Requiem to White Jazz was a time when feminism appeared to be making inroads into the wider culture. I’ve said elsewhere, and I think it holds true, that the resurgence of hardboiled crime fiction in the 1980s, grew, on the the one hand, out of  Vietnam war, and writers associated with it, and, on the other, was a reaction to that wave of feminist writers, not in a negative sense, but as a way for certain male writers to create a space in which they could address the culture, including issues of masculinity. And even though his work takes place in a predominantly male environment, Ellroy revels in pushing his male characters-  Lloyd Hopkins, Buzz Meeks, or Dudley Smith- all of whom suffer from a severe sense of entitlement, to extremes, to expose their foibles, weaknesses and perverse fantasies.

When Ellroy’s writing career began in 1980 with the semi-autobiographical private-eye novel Brown’s Requiem, the competition, as I mentioned, barely existed. Though Ellroy had not yet fully matured as a writer, it was, nevertheless, a year that saw the publication of Elmore Leonard’s  City Primeval, George V. Higgins’ Kennedy For the Defense and Crumley’s Last Good Kiss. You  probably know the story about Brown’s Requiem: Ellroy sent the manuscript to agent Nat Sobel along with the claim that he, Ellroy, was the greatest ever writer of crime fiction. Sobel wrote back saying he would take him on as a writer even though he didn’t necessarily agree with Ellroy’s assessment of himself or of his work. So Ellroy was pretty much Ellroy from the beginning. No more willing then than he would be later on to mark time, he quickly moved into a higher gear, turning his back on the private-eye novel, just as he would later turn his back on serial killers after his for-profit Silent Terror/Killer On the Road, and the traditional crime novel, instead opting wholeheartedly for the dark crimes and sleaze of history.

It’s those crimes and that sleaze that would entice and, for personal reasons, obsess Ellroy. Of course, it would also sustain his writing career, the apogee of which still has to be the L.A. Quartet. At the centre of those books sits the notorious Dahlia murder, an event Ellroy has always conflated with his mother’s brutal death, which, by his own admission, he would exploit up to, and including, the publication in 1996  of the non-fiction My Dark Places, his most personal but by no means his most effective piece of post-mortem prose. Oedipal issues aside, his mother’s death functioned as a key that opened the door onto the city’s dark terrain, one that stretches from 1947, the year before Ellroy’s birth, to 1959, a year after his mother’s death. And, in doing so, allowed Ellroy to launch an investigation into the city’s redevelopment, its political alignments and its hidden conspiracies.

Geneva Hilliker Ellroy’s murder became, for Ellroy, an irresistible calling cared. While his mother’s death has, in itself, ceased to be all that interesting, it’s impossible to ignore in discussing Ellroy’s work. This even though it tends to hide more important matters, specifically, Ellroy’s ability to read the culture and delve into the historical record, which, one could say, he would not have done had it not been for his mother’s brutal death. But let’s sidestep Ellroy’s shameless exploitation of that event, his claims and accusations, not without merit, that he is not beyond dabbling in the pornography of violence. Because however much to the contrary, Ellroy, despite his faults or maybe because of them, is still pushing the genre to extremes, his words and sentences still coming out in clipped and stinging onslaughts, sometimes as pulp poetry, while, at other times, as something closer to pulp banalites. Influenced by tabloid and scandal sheet journalism, as well as by police reporting, it’s as though he’s saying that, in writing about middle and high-ranking low-lifes, the public record can function as a literary mode in its own right, one in which crimes and any ensuing guilt assume an even greater level of meaning. 

Given Ellroy’s revisionism, it’s not surprising that he would soon be influencing an entire flock of crime writers, all claiming, or hoping, to tap into the culture. Without Ellroy, it’s even hard to imagine such noir heavyweights as George Pelecanos, Megan Abbott or Walter Mosley, much less all those blood-soaked Tarantino-type film directors.  Nor should it be surprising, in an age of excess and simulation, that Ellroy should spawn numerous imitators who, responding to the demands of the market, operate under the illusion that certain aspects of Ellroy’s work can be easily co-opted, and the violence he depicts arbitrarily applied.

While it’s arguable whether Ellroy has maintained a consistent level of analysis as he transitioned from representing the paranoid to what appeared to be a more contrarian position in his short-story, non-fiction and Gangsterland books, the two weakest and wildest of which, Bloods a Rover and Cold Six Thousand, were, coincidentally or not, written during Bush Two’s lawless reign,  one can’t fault Ellroy’s desire to evolve. It’s a desire blatantly displayed over the course of the L.A. Quartet, whose first book begins in a fairly conventional manner with the Black Dahlia, but ends with a cryptic noir vision that encompasses White Jazz:
“I pulled the trigger - click/click/roar - muzzle flash set his hair on fire.
   This scream.
   This huge hand snuffing flames out - stretching huge to quash that scream.
   A whisper.
   “We’ll stash him at one of your buildings. You do what you have to do, and I’ll watchdog him. We’ll work an angle on his money, and sooner or later he’ll spill.”
   Smoke. Mattress debris settling.
    EVERYTHING SPINNING.”
In other words, Ellroy was willing to throw everything into the mix, to create something new and confrontational. It’s a dystopian, if not apocalyptic, vision as inevitable as yesterday, today and no doubt tomorrow. At the same time, Ellroy has never shown the least interest in, or regard for, Chandler’s slick observations, easy moral imperative, and petit-bourgeois perspective, intertwined with statements regarding the city’s mean streets where “a man must go who is not himself mean…neither tarnished nor afraid.”  Ellroy’s L.A. might be romanticised but it bears little relationship to Chandler’s take on the city, much of which transpires during the same period. Chandler’s pithy comments might cut to the bone, but Ellroy’s verbal onslaughts seek to destroy everything in their path, to create, and own, a more-than-tarnished space representing the writer’s personal Los Angeles, which, having succumbed to greed and redevelopment, barely exists these days except as ghosts and remnants of the past. It’s a template that goes back at least to Roman Polanski and Robert Towne's film Chinatown, which hit the screens in 1974, a decade before the first part of the L.A. Quartet appeared. And ironically, given Ellroy’s self-confessed politics, it could even be argued that his is a leftist, possibly post-modern, interpretation of the city’s history.  For Ellroy, redevelopment arrived in tandem with the rise of the cultural spectacle, be it the film industry, the opening of Disneyland, the construction of Dodger Stadium in the Chavez Ravine area, or the creation of the freeway system.  Which makes Ellroy’s take on post-war L.A. not  far removed from the urbanologist and Ellroy’s one-time nemesis Mike Davis, who charts that same territory, and offers a similar critique, in City of Quartz and Ecology of Fear.

Of course, Ellroy’s perspective is darker, his stories more convoluted and his characters considerably more warped than the acquisitive and Machiavellian figures that populate Davis’s non-fiction. Furthermore, Ellroy’s obsessives go out of their way to inflict their distorted agenda on others. And the more they’re impeded,  the more violent they become. Repelled as well as attracted by difference, their chaotic world is invariably thrown into crisis when confronted with incongruities, whether in the form of  Elizabeth Short’s dismembered corpse in The Black Dahlia, the promiscuous Communist organiser or the zoot-suit riots in The Big Nowhere, and also feature in The Black Dahlia, or the surgically altered individuals who populate novels like L.A. Confidential and Perfidia. 

Geneva Hilliker
With every tarnished dream based on a nightmare, the Walt Disney-like Raymond Dieterling in L.A. Confidential, builds his Dream-a-Dream-Land, while making animations for his son, who lives in his own dream-a-dream-land as a psychosexual killer. Clearly, when Ellroy’s characters lash out, they do so with a vengeance, seeking, in their rage, to blind or dismember their victims.  Consequently, when Vogel, a cop in The Black Dahlia, contracts syphilis from a black prostitute, he takes revenge by visiting a Watts brothel where he ejaculates into the eyes of the women who work there. And when the body of Elizabeth Short is found, cut to pieces, it becomes fodder for tabloid journalists and emblematic of the era, her dismembered body resembling a map representing the city’s various subdivisions.
“A large triangle had been gouged out of the left thigh…the flaps of skin behind the gash were pulled back: there were no organs inside…the breasts were dotted with cigarette burns, the right one hanging loose…the girl’s face…was one large purpled bruise, the nose crushed deep into the facial cavity, the mouth cut ear to ear into a smile that leered up at you, somehow mocking the rest of the brutality inflicted.”
Short’s death pushes detectives Bleichart and Blanchard further into L.A.’s underbelly. Moving from lesbian bars on Crenshaw to Howard Hughes’ s fuck-pads, they’re aroused by Short’s scented death-trail. When Bleichart tracks down Short’s alter-ego, he turns her into a Black Dahlia simulacrum, not dissimilar from what Ellroy would do in reality (that is, if there is a reality outside his fiction), when he and his first wife, the feminist critic and novelist Helen Knode, she dressed in Dahlia regalia, would, on anniversaries of Elizabeth Short’s death, revisit the relevant sites of the Elizabeth Short case. Significantly, The Black Dahlia ends beneath the famous Hollywood sign, on property developed by silent film mogul Mack Sennett and the land speculator who might be the simulacrum’s father.

Mixing fact and fiction is, for Ellroy, a combination as potent as it is intoxicating. In My Dark Places, studying photographs of his mother’s death, he tries to touch the story beneath the picture, to make a connection, admitting everything, but knowing the bargain he struck means there’s no such exoneration, though that too might be nothing more than artifice:
“I thought I could touch the literal horror and somehow commute my life sentence.
   I was mistaken. The woman refused to grant me a reprieve. Her grounds were simple: My death gave you a voice, and I need you to recognise me past your exploitation of it.”

My Dark Places-  “A book to calm the waters after the storm of White Jazz., says the Parisian female police inspector in Karim Misk√©’s recent Arab Jazz- is, in equal parts, a reconciliation, an incantation, a recollection, and an attempt to deconstruct  the author’s past work and his relationship with 1950s SoCal culture: “That weekend is etched in hyper-focus. I remember seeing The Vikings at the Fox Wilshire Theatre.  I remember a spaghetti dinner at Yarnocelli’s restaurant. I remember a TV fight-card. I remember the bus ride to El Monte as long and hot.”

It’s a bargain first negotiated in Clandestine, which, in 1982, was also, in a sense, Ellroy’s first historical novel. Though it would be The Black Dahlia, five years later, that would take that event, intertwining it with the history of post-war Los Angeles, to its furthest extreme. To locate the subtexture of that journey, one only has to note the quotes prefacing those books. In The Black Dahlia this arrives in the form of a quote from the poet Anne Sexton that reads “Now I fold you down, my drunkard, my navigator,/My first lost keeper, to love or look at later.” Having acknowledged his mother’s absence, Ellroy, as the opening lines of the book suggest, isn’t ready to lay her memory to rest: “I knew her in life. She exists for me through others, in evidence of the ways her death drove them. Working backward, seeking only facts, I reconstructed her.”  It’s true, Ellroy resurrects his mother’s death best when he feeds it into his fiction, however obliquely, exploiting it, acknowledging it as his initiation into the textual history of Los Angeles, which, in turn, will alter his life by turning him into a writer whose texts reflect back on his beginnings. 

The Big Nowhere, published in 1988 in the final year of Reagan’s presidency, is set, appropriately enough, against the Hollywood Red Scare of the early 1950s. Appropriately, that is given Reagan’s role as New Deal liberal who morphed into an anti-communist HUAC informant. Here Ellroy relies on Joseph Conrad to articulate the novel’s subcurrent,  and, it might be said, Ellroy’s  modus operandi: “It was written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice.” Which suggests that Ellroy will move even further into the darkness of post-war Los Angeles, Yet he can’t stay away from his favorite subject: “Part of him knew it was just a dream- that it was 1950, not 1941, that the story would run its course, while part of him grasped  for new details and part tried to be dead still so as to not disrupt the unravelling.” Like the author’s pre-literary life- a trifecta of breaking and entering, drug consumption and a pulp fiction jones that which would lead to his downfall, i.e., a life submerged in noir fiction- Ellroy’s characters exist in their own pubescent purgatory, trapped between their dreams and the knowledge that they would be better off leaving those dreams alone. Moving further into the abyss, LA Confidential begins with a quote from Los Angeles  novelist Steve Erickson: “A glory that costs everything and means nothing.” An apt description of Ellroy’s obsession, combined with a series of grisly murders, the construction of that Disneyland-like park, and the warped perspective of various cops and politicians, represented by Ellroy at tabloid level:
“Press clippings on his corkboard: ‘Dope Crusader Wounded in Shootout’, ‘Actor Robert Mitchum Seized in Marijuana Shack Raid.’  Hush Hush articles, framed on his desk: ‘Hopheads Quake When Dope Scourge Cop Walks Tall’…” (L.A. Confidential)

“Narrative is my drug,” said Ellroy in an interview some years ago. And, no doubt about it, his narratives can be fairly labyrinthine. But that’s the point, and why, in LA Confidential, Captain Ed Exley, LAPD’s Mr Clean, rises through the ranks because, in his 114 page report, he’s the only person able to articulate the narrative, one that he, of course, has altered to his advantage. The advantage going to the person who understands the narrative on whatever level- whether LA Confidential as a book or the arc of history that it represents. Moreover, unraveling a narrative is what investigations, whether criminal or literary, are about, even if that means  manipulating it to suit one’s own particular agenda. So the corrupt Exley is not only credited with solving the “Night Owl” murder, but he’s succeeded in burning the evidence, keeping the case files and money, saving the careers of his erstwhile colleagues, and assisting his father in his bid to gain the Republican gubernatorial nomination. No wonder he is thought of as Mr Perfect.

The last book of the quartet, White Jazz, a novel I’ve elsewhere called the Ulysees of crime fiction, goes even further in combining police reportage, personal confession and smut magazine sensationalism. The origins of the style being the result, so Ellroy told me, of having to cut the book down a readable size, though it could just as well have been an early attempt at a kind of pulp poetry. In fact, Ellroy becomes a different, and perhaps an even more radical, writer if one thinks of him as a poet, frustrated or not, rather than as simply a hyperactive and obsessive crime writer. But this time Ellroy begins the book with a quote from the classic crime writer Ross Macdonald- who’s practically as father-obsessed as Ellroy is mother-obsessed: “In the end I possess my birthplace and am possessed by its language.” Birthplace, language and, in the end, death: these are the tools and the ponderables that are driving his narratives. Meanwhile, the prologue that follows marks out the parameters of his guilt:
   “All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams- I wake up reaching, afraid I’ll forget. Pictures keep the woman young.
   L.A. fall 1958.
   Newsprint link the dots. Names, events - so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down - the story stays dispersed. The names are death or too guilty to tell.
   I’m old, afraid I’ll forget:
   I killed innocent men.
   I betrayed secret oaths.
   I reaped profit from horror.”

The will to remember.  No wonder, after White Jazz-  for Ellroy a term meaning “a twisted plan hatched by white guys”- he decided to venture beyond the confines of crime fiction as such, just as he’d progressed beyond novels about serial killers, private-eyes and vengeance-seeking cops, to court literary legitimacy through a series of long, dark political novels. But, in a way, those beginnings are all one needs to know: that his work is sanctioned by the will to remember and dream. That the crimes described can be reduced to a single event, and ensuing guilt. In that context, Ellroy will deploy whatever he might have at his disposal: memory, fact, fiction, autobiography and a language  part-poetry and part-obscenity.  All to reconcile himself to the fact that he has reaped profit from horror and betrayed secret oaths. With the past having infected, if not cursed, the present, nostalgia, so often the province of crime fiction, becomes little more than a sick joke. For Ellroy, like for Faulkner, the past is neither dead nor past. And that will be the case so long as corruption, sexual obsession and violence continue to infect and motivate the historical record.  

But let’s momentarily return to Ellroy’s politics. When I asked him what his right-wing politics consisted of, Ellroy said, “More capitalism, free speech and libertarian type attitudes. Time has proved that communism stinks and it didn’t work. It’s like those guys in The Big Nowhere who gradually get disgusted…and realize  that the people they’re investigating are no harm to America.” Hardly the ravings of an extremist in pursuit of virtue. However, there are those, such as  Mike Davis, who regard Ellroy as a kind of proto-fascist whose sensibility undercuts the very genre he’s writing in. Even though Mike is not altogether wrong when he says The Black Dahlia is “the symbolic commencement of the post-war era…concealing a larger, metaphysical mystery,” he misunderstands Ellroy and the extent of his revisionism when he adds, “Yet in building such an all-encompassing noir mythology…Ellroy risks extinguishing the genre’s tensions, and, inevitably, its power. In his pitch blackness there is no light left to cast shadows a evil becomes a forensic banality.  The result feels like the actual moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era: the superannuation of corruption that fails any longer to outrage or interest.”

Could it not be that the Quartet feels like the moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era because it actually derives from  the moral texture of the Reagan-Bush era? Furthermore, to say Ellroy’s “all-encompassing noir mythology” destroys the genre’s tensions is to misread how the genre, or, at least, the genre according to Ellroy, has altered since the days of Ross Macdonald much less Chandler or Hammett.  Accordingly, any serious reader of the Quartet will be aware that the origins of political corruption in these novels are perversely personal, and that Ellroy has never been one to separate the historical and political from the perversely personal. After all, in the end, there’s escaping the era in which one writes or the skin in which one lives. Not only are Ellroy’s misreadings of history no worse than anyone else’s, but, by focusing on warped obsessions as a prime motivating force, he is probably closer than most to explaining how history and the social dynamics of power actually work.

So often overblown, or, at any rate, over-the-top, Ellroy’s characters move history as much as they are moved by history. This in a genre that seeks to manipulate the reader as much as the author manipulates his or her protagonist. With their own manufactured trajectories, Ellroy’s characters are never less than expendable, burning themselves out for the sake of the narrative, after which the author disposes of them without a twinge of conscience. Like the twisted and tormented hero of his earlier novels, Lloyd Hopkins. Too much a typical protagonist, his exit signalled the end, so far as Ellroy was concerned, of a particular kind of warped decency. For Ellroy, avenging angels, no matter how right-wing or psychotic, are easier to eliminate than their devilish counterparts. That’s the case with the machiavellian Dudley Smith, whom the reader encounters for the first time some hundred pages into Clandestine. Dudley remains a constant throughout the Quartet, rearing his raging but younger head most recently in Perfidia. Described as someone who “scared the hell out of guys who scared the hell out of guys,” Smith, an Ellroy favourite, builds a formidable power base through fear and manipulation, willing to kill, whether in or out of the line of duty. Personifying everything loathsome about law enforcement, he is, as Buzz Meeks, in LA Confidential, says, “smarter than everyone else.” An old school cop and racist, who emigrated from Ireland, Smith carries a secret agenda the size of greater Los Angeles. With his hand in everyone’s pocket, he possesses a a personality to fit the occasion; on the one hand, he’s pure Irish blarney, telling folksy stories about his family or offering fatherly advice to young officers; while, on the other hand, he’s a hit-man for LA crime boss Mickey Cohen. A minor character at the beginning of the Quartet, he ends up a major player and the personification of LA’s noir narrative, ethically-challenged but morally consistent. 


It’s not only Dudley who’s given a pre-Quartet life in Perfidia, but the likes of Blanchard and Bleichart, Claire De Haven and, most significantly, Kay Lake, the “red princess” from The Black Dahlia. Arguably the moral centre of the novel, Kay understands that the era’s paranoia is based, as she reports in her journal, on “The lie that  race defines human beings. The lie that dissent defines sedition....The definitive lie of fearful hatred.” Taking place just prior to, during and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Perfidia, despite lacking the impact of Ellroy’s earlier work, manages, if nothing else, to add substance and meaning to the original L.A. Quartet, still a few years in the future. Moreover, Perfidia succeeds in walking a tightrope between the paranoia of Ellroy’s earlier writing and the contrariness of his non-fiction and Gangsterland novels. What it lacks in intensity, it more than makes up for in political insight and sense of history. As the narrator says, "The city would build up and out after the war. The war gave him L.A. ablaze with crazy purpose.” Political, because how could a novel about the treatment of Japanese-Americans post-Pearl Harbor, with its obvious comparisons to 9/11 and its aftermath, but with Japanese-Americans instead of Muslims as the objects of public vitriol, not be political. Though it should also be noted that, according to at least one L.A. Japanese-American crime writer, Naomi Hirahami, Japanese-Americans, no matter how brilliant, would not be hired by the LAPD until the late 1940s. Though I’m more than willing to give Ellroy, usually fairly scrupulous in terms of history, a degree of poetic, or, at any rate, noir, license on this matter, regardless of how it might otherwise impinge on the accuracy of his narrative.

As a  typically hyper-driven memory theatre, overflowing with forensic detail, fevered declarations and obsessive musings, Perfidia, and the three books that will follow, might well be Ellroy’s final elegy to the city. Without the narrative drive, urgency and paranoia of earlier novels, Perfidia, nevertheless, further substantiates Ellroy’s revision of the genre and his sense of the city. At the same time, its publication comes in a decidedly different era, one in which Ellroy’s portrayal of male anxiety no longer holds the same impact, while the psychogeography of his native city (with an emphasis on psycho) has now been gone over countless times. Which makes any paranoia regarding the failure of trickle-down economics, corruption, hegemonic decline, political correctness and gender politics, a given rather than a substantial and innovative critique. Conspiracies? What else is there other than human weakness, duplicity, betrayal, money-hungry land-grabs, and a society tearing itself apart through fear, racism, nationalism and capitalism. And even though Ellroy’s stock might have fallen from the bull market of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it is still the case that he knows his city’s history as well as anyone, and remains as intent as ever to squeeze everything he can from it. As the narrator says in Perfidia, “The war let him love L.A. one last time as it was." While at the same time, wingnut cop Carl Hull, issues a caveat, warning Dudley Smith, and perhaps the reader, that there is more nastiness to come, because "The real war starts when this one ends." 

Whether investigating the Dahlia killing, the Red Scare, Mickey Cohen, the founding of Las Vegas, Howard Hughes, the machinations of the Kennedy family, or the plight of Japanese Americans in the early 1940s,  Ellroy’s interpretations are as personal as they are plausible. Basing his plots and counter-plots on how obsessive behaviour creates history, Ellroy has spent four decades expurgating the past in order that he might, whether he realises it or not, critique the present. Despite his fictional characters, their failings and their crimes, Ellroy is not so much interested in shaping events as in reconciling himself to the paranoia of public facts and private obsessions. With a gargantuan ego and formidable writing skills, Ellroy, even as a contrarian, might yet, and against form, be delivering much more than he claims. http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

It's a Mean Old World: Nobody Walks by Mick Herron

Nobody Walks, as far as I'm concerned, is Mick Herron's best novel yet.  But it's different than his previous two novels in that it moves  further afield from that band of MI5 losers ensconced in their  headquarters in Slough House, or its more respectable equivalent at Regent's Park. Not that MI5 doesn't play a part in this one. After all, this is a Mick Herron novel, and, even though he has also written a handful  of detective novels, MI5 has been his specialty of late. Written in short, sharp bursts, with nail-biting editing that move from scene to scene, Nobody Walks  follows Tom Bettany who, while working in a meat processing plant in France, receives a voice mail regarding the death of Liam, his estranged son, who, high on some new and potent form of cannabis, has fallen from the balcony of his London flat.  Bettany returns to London for Liam's funeral, after which he sets out to find the person responsible for his son's death. Of course, with his background, it's only a matter of time before his presence in London awakens an assortment of bedfellows, not only MI5, but local gangsters, the Russian mafia and the police. In all, an evocative novel about present-day London.

It's also a novel evokes present-day London. With an eye for the incongruous as well as a sharp turn of phrase, totally British, but not without mid-Atlantic influences:

"So he walked the streets and checked what was on offer. It was early for clubs but pubs were available, and wine bars. Other places, he had no idea what they were. Literally. He passed a window through which white walls shone, art hung at well-lit intervals, and he'd have thought it a gallery if there hadn't been people unfolding menus and laying tables. Every twenty paces, the world changed. Now he was passing a bookie's and a boarded-up salesroom, now a string of takeaways, Bangladeshi, Japanese, Thai. A dentist's surgery next to a sex shop."

"Bad things could happen on the tube, though few entertained the possibility that disaster would happen to them. They feared, instead, small acts of rudeness and aggression, their own as well as others', because in the daily anonymous crush it was easy for a grip on the ordinary to loosen. The underground birthed a creature that might turn on itself. There was little need of outside agency."

There's a very thin line separating crime and spy fiction. With the former these days tending to turn in on itself, it's the latter that seems more than willing to be picking up the slack. Which was something the late French noirist Jean-Patrick Manchette commented upon over twenty years ago. My bet is that Herron would have appealed to Manchette in more ways than one.  

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

It Always Rains On the Working Class

It Always Rains On Sunday is a favourite of mine, both Robert Hamer's 1947 film adaptation, and Arthur La Bern's 1945 novel. Taking place within a single wet Sunday, both film and novel are evocative depictions of London East End life just before the onset of  the war. Romanticised, perhaps, though not by much.  Or at any rate, just enough to be effective. The film, best remembered for Googie Withers' tough and touching performance- even better than her role in Night and the City- accurately captures the claustrophobic ambiance of the novel. Though Rose in La Bern's novel is far more worn down and heavier than Googie in Hamer's film, and a lifetime away from her youthful romance with Tommy who shows up asking her for help after escaping from prisoner. The film also lacks the scope of La Bern's novel, which, despite its set pieces, combines a Kersh-like grittiness with a cinematic eye and interventions  reminiscent of Dos Passos. Particularly observant is La Bern when it comes to all things sartorial, as in "ten-and-elevenpenny imitations of Anthony Eden hats, white silk mufflers, quite smart fifty-shilling suits and patent shoes." Written in a rhetorical mode few would try to emulate these days, La Bern's novel doesn't miss a trick. Told in retrospect, from a post-war perspective which  looks back on the days prior to the war, this is an East End replete with class gradations, populated by wide boys, petty criminals, womanisers, second-rate dance-band musicians, pugilists, street urchins, barrow boys and dreamers. La Bern also has an fondness for expositions, which he probably inherited from his visits to the local picture palaces, as much earlier working class fiction and populist  journalism. This is the East End on the verge of change, first in the form of the war and the blitz, followed by the creation of the welfare state.
Arthur La Bern

Here's the opening paragraph:
"The houses in Coronet Grove were originally constructed in yellow brick, but in the course of half a century the factory fumes and domestic smoke of East London have transformed this bright ochre rash into a grey smudge, which is only relieved by the six white strips in front of each house, the bright colours on the advertisement hoarding at the end of the street and the white lace curtains at the windows, here and there parted to reveal the dark-green plumage of an aspidistra plant."

Just one of a handful of excellent writers from that era who wrote about London's working class with a style forged on Fleet Street, La Bern is best remembered, if at all, for writing Frenzy (original title: Goodbye Piccadilly, Hello Leicester Square) which Hitchcock, much to the author's ire, adapted for the screen. An added feature of this volume is crime writer Cathi Unsworth's introduction, which not only puts La Bern's career in perspective but is informative regarding the criminal underworld of that period (particularly for fans of the BBC's Peaky Blinders). In all, another excellent reprint from London Books.








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