California Literary Review

Destination: Morgue! L.A. Tales – by by James Ellroy

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April 11th, 2007 at 11:42 am

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Destination: Morgue! L.A. Tales
by James Ellroy
Random House, 389 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★☆

Tough, Honest, Brilliant

“Boxing is:

Blood sport declawed and reregulated. Cockfights for aesthetes and wimps.

Boxing is microcosm. Boxing baits pundits. Boxing rips writers and rags them to riff.

Boxing taps testosterone. Boxing bangs to the balls. Boxing mauls and makes you mine meaning….

…Vegas boxing is:

Lowlife pomp. Westminster West. Best-of-weight class as best-of-breed.

Vegas boxing is Rome revived. Gladiators divert high rollers. Imperial goons exploit muscled maxi-men and mainline their money.”

Those are the first seventy words from James Ellroy’s latest book, Destination: Morgue! L.A. Tales. And they are classic, typical Ellroy. Bang out the sentences almost like the murderous gunfire he so often describes. Nouns. Verbs. Sometimes a little more. Let the reader think for a change, examine the images on a twisted stage located in his own dark head. Ellroy doesn’t waste anyone’s time including his own or the reader’s. Take it or leave. Get it or stand on some hot L.A. sidewalk corner, winos staring you downtown, auto exhaust choking you as you wait on some nonexistent bus corner. Straight, out the loop, stupid – those are your problems, not his.

A lot of people don’t like boxing. Hate it in fact with the passion that Ali used to humiliate Patterson in the ring forty years ago in a title bout. But that’s not the point here. Anyone who reads “Balls to the Wall” will gain a true, bloody taste for a slice of contemporary life that is all American, nasty, perverted, occasionally heroic. That’s Ellroy in spades. He writes L.A., Vegas (check out perhaps his finest work to date The Cold Six Thousand), twisted, sick, harsh, perverse, evil, licentious…all of it. So hang yourself on a prissy, self-righteous coat rack and say “I don’t want to look at that stuff. I want to see the good in life,” all the while surfing the homogenized, horrific, propagandized horrors of the CNN-FOX (“fair and fucking balanced”)-NBC-CBS (Pompous-Dan- Rather-scooping-a-no-story-network) government-regulated swill designed for our viewing pleasure.

I’ll take Ellroy and an honesty that blows me away every time I read the guy. He hasn’t been there. He IS there.

His latest book, to quote shamelessly and lazily from the cover copy is, “Dig. The Demon Dog gets down with a new book of scenes from America’s capital of kink: Los Angeles. Fourteen pieces, some fiction, some nonfiction, all true enough to be admissible as state’s evidence, and half of them in print for the first time. And every one of them bearing the James Ellroy brand of mayhem, machismo, and hollow-nose prose.”

Sounds over the top, doesn’t it? Not so. Understated if anything.

Here are Mexican featherweights and unsolved-murder victims, crooked cops and a very clean D.A. Here is a profile of Hollywood’s latest celebrity perp-walker, Robert Blake, and three new novellas featuring a demented detective obsessed with a Hollywood actress. And possibly the final appearance of the Hush-Hush sleaze monger Danny Getchell (played brilliantly by Danny DeVito in the movie L.A. Confidential).

Ellroy’s friends are L.A. cops and detectives – vice, homicide, mayhem. He’s at home in the fifties and early sixties but rides true in contemporary time as well.

A musician-friend of mine turned me on to Ellroy years ago when he called late one night-early one morning saying “John, got to read White Jazz. Ellroy. Unreal,” and hung up. I got around to this a few weeks later. Here’s something from the Jazz book.

“The job: take down a bookie mill, let the press in – get some ink to compete with the fight probe.

Some fruit sweating a sodomy beef snitched: fourteen phones, a race wire. Exley’s memo said show some force, squeeze the witness at the hotel later – find out what the Feds had planned.

In person: ‘If things get untoward, don’t let the reporters take pictures. You’re an attorney, Lieutenant. Remember how clean Gallaudet likes his cases.

I hate Exley.

Exley thinks I bought law school with bribe money.’

And on and on taking a viewer-reader through the brutal madness of dark side L.A. Not the Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aston pretty people fluff, though he nails those types (“types” ‘cause they aren’t really real) like that pair of lightweights as he bangs along.

Ellroy became obsessed with murder and the dark side of human nature as a young boy when his mother, a woman with a weakness for booze and strange men, was murdered, her body found naked and brutalized just feet from a public street. He writes of the search, many years later, for her killer in My Dark Moments. His father died a few years later from the booze and young Ellroy was left to fend for himself on the streets alone. Rough trip. He made it.

He was born in L.A. in 1948. His L.A. Quartet novels – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz – were international best sellers. American Tabloid was Time’s Novel of the Year for 1995; My Dark Places was a Time Best Book of the Year and a New York Times Notable Book for 1996. The Cold Six Thousand was a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year for 2001. And so on. He lives along the southern California coast.

Yeah, Ellroy is rough, harsh, wicked – so is the world these days. Catch Baghdad or the current presidential race staggering into psychotic oblivion. Fante and Bukowski got ripped for decades because they wrote about what they knew, the L.A. down-and-out, the drunks, and not the saccharine, lame-brain, Pollyanna worlds of Costner, Redford and Frank Capra. Live in a boring dream land or hang out with the truth. Your choice. Ellroy could care less.

A riff from the story “The Trouble I Cause:”

“I wiggled wires. I circumscribed circuits. I rigged reciprocal reverb and sent sound to both rooms. I picked up my Polaroid and flew off the floor.

I hammered down the hallway. I banged both doors off their bolts. I found the fetching foursome perched in Pat’s parlor.

Pat was knock-kneed nude. Parker’s pants pooled at his patellas. Polly was baby-buff and tantalizingly tan. The stacked steno stared at her – savagely Sapphic.

I popped one perfect Polaroid. Insurance for loss of life or limb. I buried it by a burger stand at Beverly and Berendo.”

Ellroy can’t help himself.

Thank god.

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