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On board Ellroy's dark express

Destination: Morgue!Destination: Morgue! L.A. Tales James Ellroy Vintage: 390 pp., $13.95 paper

September 28, 2004|James Sallis | Special to The Times

James Ellroy makes me nervous.

I remember years ago, reading "White Jazz": Three pages in, I found myself glancing up from the page to look about, as though expecting a derailed train to crash through the wall at any moment. All those jagged, spinning shards of grammar and one-sentence paragraphs, rim shots of periods sending the whole busy thing into stop-motion, sensory impressions swarming like killer bees. The world as perceived by a mind at its limits.

Ellroy wants to make me nervous, of course -- that's what his work is all about. And to fit the aim, he's forged a style uniquely his own. Energetic and abrasive, it comes at us like a speed freak, spitting out words at a blazing cadence to make room for new ones, leaping from topic to topic by free association, drooling half-rhyme and alliteration, which one finds in abundance in Ellroy's "Destination: Morgue!": "Boxing is microcosm. Boxing baits pundits. Boxing rips writers and rags them to riff. Boxing taps testosterone.... Boxing mauls and makes you mine meaning."

The gamble with so stylized a form is that all too easily the form itself can take over, dictating the manner in which things are said and in fact limiting what can be said. And for the reader, dodging across page after page with these fragmentation grenades going off all around him, it can have the opposite effect of what was intended, dulling the senses rather than heightening them -- a kind of shell shock. But the power and the pull of Ellroy's writing is unmistakable.

"Destination: Morgue!" is a miscellany, a collection of 12 pieces, four of these short stories, the rest of them articles written for GQ magazine. The titles -- "My Life As a Creep," "Little Sleazer and the Mail-Sex Mama," "Hot Prowl Rape-O" -- reflect Ellroy's fascination with sleaze and scandal mags. They deal with boxing, the Robert Blake case, justice California-style, unsolved murders, police procedures, executions -- and with James Ellroy, for the autobiographical element is a constant. Name the strange and he's been there: breaking into young women's houses to steal undergarments, duking it out in holding cells, coming to from a drug binge and finding he's lost the power of speech. He testifies:

"My dad worked for Rita Hayworth circa 1950.... My mom wet-nursed juicehead film stars. My dad was lazy. My mom was workaholic.... My mom drank bourbon highballs. I watched her shape-shift behind booze....

"I honed my nascent narrative skills via jerry-rigged jailhouse jive.... I listen to the language of lowlife lassitude. It's rancid rationalization. I could have been/I should have been/they owe me. Society made me corrupt."

But for all the self-reference, Ellroy's real subject is, always has been, Los Angeles, City of Angels and devil-take-the-hindmost, this melting pot of melting pots welded together by the heat of "corruption and obsession," a city of endless promise and heartbreak, our shining Cibola:

"There's L.A. It's epidemically everywhere. It's a circumscribed circus and draconian dream. It's a lavish land of caveman cops, shakedown shills, and jungle-bred junkies. It's a hyperbolic whorehouse and a hip hermaphrodite hutch. It hops on its hind legs and howls. It's a blistering blur blowing its way right through me."

The two obsessive themes, Ellroy and L.A., come wonderfully together in one of the collection's first pieces that offers a fine and disturbing portrait of the emerging writer. Recalling his own voracious reading, and how books quite literally changed his life -- saved it, in fact -- Ellroy summons up visions of his readers. This essay is T.S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" rewritten for our times, written with and in the indelible grime of urban America's streets:

"There's a kid or kids somewhere. I'll never know them. They're particle-puzzle-cubing right now. They might be mini-misanthropes from Moosefart, Montana.... They dig my demonic dramas. The metaphysic maims them. They grasp at the gravity. They'll duke it out with their demons. They'll serve up a surfeit of survival skills. They won't be chronologically crucified."

No, they won't forget his work. How could they? "They'll radically revise it. They'll pass it along."


James Sallis wrote "Chester Himes: A Life" and the Lew Griffin series of novels that includes "Ghost of a Flea" and "The Long-legged Fly." His most recent book is the story collection "A City Equal to My Desire."

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