Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Obsession in the Pursuit of Virtue is No Vice: Love Me Fierce In Danger by Steven Powell- The Life of James Ellroy


As any serious Ellroy reader knows, Jean Hilliker Ellroy was murdered, her body found early Sunday morning, June 22nd, 1958 in El Monte, California.  On that same night, in Pasadena, I recall, or at least I think I recall, that I was with  a group of fellow junior high school friends, all of us some 13 years old, a week or so into our summer vacation. We had just come down from the nearby railroad tracks where the Super Chief dutifully passed by twice a day, and were aimlessly walking down Colorado Blvd, east of Rosemead, some eight miles from El Monte. From out of nowhere several police cars arrived, sirens shrieking, roadblocks put in place, and we were told to get off the street and go home.  

Ever since hearing about Jean Ellroy's murder, I've associated it with that night in Pasadena. Did the two events really have anything to do with one another? Or was it just a coincidence? And did they really happen on the same night? To be truthful, I can't say one way or the other.  Or was it one of those dreams that, over time, slowly morphs into reality? Perhaps the police had been tipped off about a possible suspect- that "swarthy man" they were looking for- or maybe they'd been thrown into action by another case altogether?  What occurred on that evening, that is if anything occurred at all, has stayed with me for many years, even using it-  minus anything about what had taken place in El Monte- as the opening to my recent novel Skin Flick. 

Not that Powell's  scrupulously researched and extremely readable biography was of any help in disentangling the facts from my fiction, or dispelling the notion that I can definitively say I really do remember the night Ellroy's mother was murdered. Even so, it's Powell's account of his subject's early life that I found most fascinating, from Ellroy's brief period in the San Gabriel Valley to his years in L.A.'s Fairfax district, from breaking into houses of women he was fixated on to caddying at various elite Hollywood golf courses. No wonder Powell's description of those days often reads like an early Ellroy novel. Which is to be expected since, as Powell points out, Ellroy has long utilised the details of his life, particularly in those early novels, as fodder for his fiction. 

Thankfully, Powell isn't afraid to present Ellroy in all his guises: good, bad and ugly. Whether dog lover, barking manic, right-winger, womaniser, self-promoter, friend, drug addict, alcoholic, rehab attendee, etc., though, of course, the most important guise of all, that of a brilliant and feverish writer who has challenged the norms of crime and historical fiction. As well as rummaging through Ellroy's life, Powell offers up a series of close readings of the demon dog's major works. However obligatory, this unfortunately constitutes, for me, one of the least interesting aspects of the book.  Maybe because Ellroy's plots are as dizzying, if not more so, than those of Raymond Chandler. And, for some perverse reason, my instinct is to let any incomprehension speak for itself.  Indeed, I might have glossed over Powell's  readings if not for his lucid ability to deconstruct those very plots.  By the same token,  I found my curiosity regarding Ellroy's life and corresponding fiction, beginning to fade in direct proportion to his rise in notoriety and entrance into the monied world of high stakes publishing and Hollywood movie making. Perhaps that's because his public shtick had by then become  all-too predictable, his novels increasingly fragmented and dispersed, and his private demons all too obvious. Having said that, Powell doesn't flinch when contrasting Ellroy's outward demeanour with the messiness of his inner life. Not my truc, it's true, but such is the  nature of biographical writing and Powell handles it as well as anyone could possibly be expected to do.

That Ellroy's L.A. and mine are relatively congruent clearly has something to do with why my obsessive interest in Ellroy reached its zenith early on, reading, as they were  published, Brown's Requiem and Clandestine, followed by his Lloyd Hopkins series, and, in what I still regard as the apogee of his oeuvre, the first The L.A. Quartet and American Tabloid. His follow-up, My Dark Places, important as it might have been for Ellroy, and however popular amongst his fans, marked a modulation, not so much in  Ellroy's writing style- that had already been accomplished-  as in how he was presenting his writing and himself to the public. Though I read with interest the novels that followed- Cold Six Thousand, Blood's a Rover and Perfidia- I found my attention was focusing less on the plots of those books than on  their construction, contours and linguistic inventiveness.  As for murk and muck of This Storm and Widespread Panic, I have to admit I've yet to take the plunge, but expect more of the same, if not even more so.        

A friend once said, "The problem with Ellroy is that he's a frustrated poet." In fact, his writing makes more sense if one thinks of it in that way.  Particularly his later work, which might be regarded as something closer to epic poetry than to prose, as imagistic as it is scriptorial, its bullet-like lines and vernacularisms more akin to  spontaneous bop-prosody than genre-ridden hardboiled prose. And let's face it, the extremes to which Ellroy  goes when it comes to his  public persona can sometimes seem more like that of a classic over-the-top romantic poet than a writer of historical crime fiction.  

Nevertheless, I can't imagine many Ellroy readers who won't want to read Love Me Fierce.... And well they should. Because, even if you thought you knew Ellroy, there will be something in Powell's book to surprise you, something that will offer a greater understanding of Ellroy  and how he's  been able to turn the complexities of his life and the world around him into the totality of his fiction. In the end, this is as  clear-headed a portrait of Ellroy as we're likely  to get.  Moreover, one comes away from Powell's book reassured that the richness of Ellroy's fictional world-building can't help but provide an access to institutional machinery- whether the police, politicians, the underworld, Hollywood producers, up-market publishers, high rollers and power brokers- and, by doing so, fills a gap separating the market from the realities of everyday life.  Though, if you'll excuse me, I can't help but think about that summer's night in 1958 still convinced it might be true.   

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