James Ellroy may be our best pure writer.
There are a lot of writers who get closer to telling us the truth about how and why we live. And then there are some darlings whose dazzlements cause me to shrug. Taste is a weird thing and it can't entirely be helped. I can go off Ellroy for a while and not even miss him; if someone asks me to recount the plot of one of his brutal books I generally find myself stumbling. Yet when confronted with another of his door-stopping novels, I can't wait to lean in and lose myself in his staccato sentences, in the hail of his icy words.
Call it reading for pleasure, I guess.
He's getting better, and I'm embarrassed to look back at my reviews of, say, The Cold Six Thousand or American Tabloid, which I'm sure were gushy enough. Ellroy is often ghettoized as a crime or mystery writer, but what he really does is a kind of hard-boiled historical fiction told through the eyes and words of the shock troops on the ground.
He invents for them a patois based on what he has likely gleaned from hanging around cop shops and talking to hard people, thinks hard about the compromised and fallen nature of man, and goes into his room and types. Every few years a book comes out, and for a while I feast.
This Storm (Knopf, $29.95) picks up in 1942, immediately after the events of Ellroy's last novel, 2014's Perfida in the days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Perfida was the first book in what Ellroy proposes as his second Los Angeles Quartet (the first set of novels kicked off in 1987 with The Black Dahlia and ran through The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz). A lot of the same characters that appear in the first quartet are featured in the first two books of the second, which is set a few years earlier. (The real-life Black Dahlia murder occurred in 1947.)
Dudley Liam Smith, a corrupt detective who is one of Ellroy's most robust creations, has a central role in This Storm, as do other characters who've played roles in Ellroy's books, including socialite Kay Lake, Japanese-born forensic scientist Hideo Ashida, LAPD detectives Buzz Meeks and Lee Blanchard, and real-life William H. Parker, who'd go on to become the LAPD chief, and Elmer Jackson, a real-life cop who became embroiled in a real-life scandal after it was revealed he was involved with a prostitution ring in 1947.
There's also a character who (unsurprisingly) seems a stand-in for Dahlia victim Elizabeth Short, who in the Ellroy universe is inextricably linked with Ellroy's murdered mother Jean Hilliker.
Perfida covers only 23 days, so as This Storm opens, the LAPD is still rounding up and interring Japanese Americans, with individuals taking advantage of the chaos and paranoia to stake out their personal territories. The plot involves a triple homicide, Nazi gold, slave labor, Japanese submarines and the deadly Griffith Park fire of 1933. Father Coughlin has a walk-on role. Dudley Smith acquires a fiefdom in Mexico, preening in custom-cut Nazi gear.
It's a wild, ripping book -- but it only seems to teach. Ellroy warps things, writes what should have been, not what was. The title is allegedly taken from a W.H. Auden poem that communist polemicist Meyer Gelb recites during a rabble-rousing speech just before the Griffith Park fire.
"Meyer knew this fruity English poet," one character tells another. "... W.H. wrote a poem for one of his numerous boyfriends, and it had the words 'This Storm' in it. Meyer read the poem at his rallies, to work up the rubes."
Actually, the poem to which Ellroy seems to allude to is "To a Writer On His Birthday," and he wrote it for Christopher Isherwood two years after the fire.
It doesn't matter. I don't read Ellroy for history. I don't read him for cop stories. I read him for his crunchy words.
WELTY PHOTO BOOK REISSUED
In a more perfect world we'd have more space to discuss the University of Mississippi's recent re-issue of Eudora Welty Photographs, a portfolio of images of the writer's fellow Mississippians shot during the 1930s. These photos, of ordinary people going about their lives in a poor state in hard times, testify to the same empathy and clear vision that mark her fiction. Poverty in Mississippi, she said, had less to do with the Depression than the ongoing way of things.
She would later acknowledge she was able to move "through the scene openly and yet invisibly because I was part of it, born into it, taken for granted," but insisted she had no political agenda.
"I was taking photographs of human beings because they were real life and they were there in front of me and that was the reality," she said in a 1989 interview. "I was the recorder of it. I wasn't trying to exhort the public."
Style on 06/16/2019
Print Headline: Read Ellroy for his words, not history