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The Great Right Place: James Ellroy Comes Home

July 30, 2006|James Ellroy | James Ellroy is the author of 16 books, including "The Black Dahlia," which will be released as a film directed by Brian De Palma in September.

My old church is a condo block. The Black Dahlia site remains '50s intact. L.A. is all new and wholly familiar. It's why I ran away and why I ran back.

The street grids are unchanged. Overbuilding has blocked out views and blitzed topography. Old buildings abut pocket malls. Old parks are wrapped in iron gates. L.A. is epidemically everywhere and discernible only in glimpses.

The L.A. mandate was always enticement and expansion. That marks all growth as just and true. Hometowns should offer the proper balance of safety and inspiration. I call inspiration a sense of danger contained. L.A. got too safe 25 years ago. I got out then. My life got too dangerous five years ago. I pondered safety zones for a long interval.

I learned that I'm only safe here.

The rooms were lush. The bathtub was big. The mini-bar featured gourmet potato chips and chocolate-coated almonds. My Beverly Wilshire hotel suite--spring 2002.

I love hotel suites. They make me feel like King Farouk in exile. I bestow mystic status on L.A. hotel suites. They are safety zones and affirmations of my inflated self-hood. I spent bad years in L.A. I slept in parks and did county jail time for puerile misdemeanors. How suite it is. Let's exult in how you overcame your hometown disadvantage.

Not this time.

I was midway through a three-year crack-up. It was the upshot of long transits of overwork and emotional seepage held in check by near-insane ambition. Brutal sleeplessness and panic attacks. Sobbing jags and weightless plummets.

It was a six-week hotel stay. My alleged L.A. agenda: take a neurofeedback course to curb insomnia. My real L.A. mission: hide out and seek safety in the wild-ass place that made me.

My marriage was burning down. My nerves were shot. My mind ran in obsessive circuits. I was strung out on sedatives, sleeping pills and herbal uppers. I flew and drove around L.A., staring at women. I crashed and tried to slake my king-size sleep deficit.

I was afraid that I'd lose my mind. I was afraid that I'd fully regain my mind and return to the work regime that cracked me up to begin with. I lost my mind on an L.A. rooftop in 1975. I knew it could happen again. Drugs salved my nervous system. Drugs provided sleep. Drugs failed to quash my dreams or alter their recurring backdrop.

It was L.A. then. The old neighborhood--Beverly and Western. The park I hid out in. The locales of cop rousts and losing fistfights. The dive apartment that I ran from and left my father to die in.

The physical dreamscape was dark-toned and '60s-'70s vintage. The thematic dreamscape was all fear. I was walking the streets. I was homeless in the city I had rendered with great success as a writer. I was bewildered, disconsolate, completely lost.

The hotel suite ran five bills a night. The tab bought me a safety zone and a plush nightmare enclosure. Then and now merged. I ran back to the place I ran from. I subsisted on drugged sleep and failed to countermand my unconscious. L.A. was epidemically everywhere. I needed to be here. In the crack-up spring of 2002, I never asked myself why.

L.A. bids pundits to spin epigrams. W.H. Auden called L.A. "The Great Wrong Place." I'll ascribe intent. Auden saw L.A. as a lodestone for opportunists and psychically maimed misfits. I sense this because I fall into both categories. Auden couched L.A. in a film-noir construction. Losers migrated here to start over and become someone else. L.A. was a magnet for lives in desperate duress. The sheer indifference of the place consumed the migrants and drove them mad. They succumbed to madness in a sexy locale. The place itself provided solace and recompense. They had the comfort of other arriviste losers. They entered the L.A. spiritus mundi. They handed out their head shots. They joined that unique L.A. casting call.

For picaresque grifters, dollar-driven D.A.s, well-hung gigolos, hollow-eyed strumpets, hophead jazz musicians, pervert cops, alcoholic private eyes, sadistic studio heads, laudanum-lapping layabouts, homosexual informants, religious quacks and an uncategorizable array of stupes with indefinable psychopathic mandates and plain inconsolable despair.

I can't claim migrant status. My parents moved here. I was hatched on Wilshire Boulevard during the film-noir era. My parents were good-looking denizens of despair. They loved L.A. They might have understood the banality at the heart of Auden's big perception: L.A. is all about big antics, big misbehavior, big hyperbole.

My mother was a statuesque redhead from hick-town Wisconsin. She won a beauty contest and breezed through L.A. in '38. She tanked a screen test. She bombed back to her registered-nurse gig in Chicago. She got pregnant, got a scrape, married a rich geek and divorced him pronto. She ran. She landed in L.A. in '40.

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