Wednesday, September 10, 2008

James Ellroy, "Destination: Morgue!" (2004).

Once again I've returned to the work of the hard boiled L.A.-scribe, James Ellroy. Previously I've read and blogged about The Black Dahlia and My Dark Places. Although there were things about those books that bothered me, I decided that there was enough in the author's work to continue my explorations. Thus I picked up Destination: Morgue! (2004) during a recent spending spree at Half Priced Books. I didn't know whether this title was supposed to be fiction or non-fiction, and after reading it I'm still not sure. That in itself would be no reason to discount the quality of the writing. Ellroy consistently dwells in a netherworld that seems to merge reality and fantasy. Just so, he probably shouldn't be using those kinds of labels.

Destination: Morgue! is broken up into two parts. The first is given the heading "Crime Culture/Memoir", implying that it fits under the True Crime category. If these tales are accurately classified, there are some troublesome associations for the author. I already knew that Ellroy had a tough upbringing, what with the unsolved murder of his mother, and the untidy and untimely death of his Dad. And I knew that the young Ellroy fell into some maladaptive behavioral trends... but I had no idea about the extent of his perversions. It's one thing to be drawn to the seedy and violent side of life if you can contain yourself to voyeurism. It's quite another to get directly involved.

By his own account, Ellroy was (at the very least) a bit of a miscreant. He started off with garden variety shoplifting, and worked his way up to eating Benzadrine inhaler cotton wads, peeping, breaking-and-entering, and stealing panties. Considering his literary (?) obsessions with "hot prowls" and rape/torture/murder, I wouldn't be surprised if the guy didn't flirt with more serious crimes. Even if he was able to hold himself in check, he certainly succumbed to a life of dissolution. After spending time in various forms of incarceration, and ending up close to death from sustained alcohol poisoning, Ellroy "went straight" and got a job as a caddy at an L.A. country club. It was during that period that he was first successfully published.

While Ellroy has a certain facility for describing crimes scenes and investigations in great detail, he appears to have a lot of difficulty keeping his internal and external lives separate. He often conflates his own deeds and drives with those of historical figures, as well as his own creations. What makes this tendency particularly irksome is how self-righteously judgmental Ellroy gets. Despite his own flaws he fails to see the humanity in others (a major disability for a writer). Just one example of his hypocrisy is a completely irrelevant condemnation of Bill Clinton that he tacked on to the end of his own litany of perversion and crime. It's as if he feels justified to label others "good" or "evil" based upon political affiliations (or race, gender, sexual preference, etc.).

Indeed, Ellroy's proclivities are reinforced in Part 2 of Destination: Morgue! Here he presents a trilogy of novellas about a far right wing vigilante cop who enforces justice without regard for civil rights. And he can't restrain himself from peppering his narrative with a string of offensive ethnic slurs of all types (EX: "color coonordinated Tommy Hipnigger"). As if this weren't enough, the author continues what becomes an almost interminable habit of throwing arbitrary alliteration into every single paragraph. Dig the square loner trying to come on hip- "Local louts loitered. Porch punks paraded. They hopped house to house and shared Schlitz malt liquor." You think that's cute? Try 389 pages of that unrelenting crap.

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