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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 father was here already. She was 25. He was 42. He served in World War I and embellished his exploits with ham-actor flair. She bought his rebop. He was big and handsome and packed panache as a Rita Hayworth gofer. His marriage? An impediment circumventable by quickie divorce.

They shacked up. He divorced the first Mrs. Ellroy. They got hitched in '47. I was born in '48. He blew his Rita Hayworth gig and schemed up deals that never caught spark. She held down nursing jobs and flew on cheap bourbon nightly. They splitsvilled in '55. A split-custody decree followed. I went to school, went to church and read my father's scandal rags. I caught a cavalcade of casting calls and grokked L.A., kiddie bug-eyed.

It felt like a small-town big city. There were wide streets devoid of traffic and vacant lots on Wilshire. The air sparkled or hazed with incinerator dust. A big sky tamped down a wide-and-low floor plan. Hills bracketed the north. The southern boundary was somewhere down around nowhere. The beach formed the western perimeter. The eastern edge was midway between downtown and forever.

The orderly neighborhoods ran to sloth in gradual shadings. Negroes lived south, Mexicans lived east, white folks lived everywhere. We were white Protestants and had the world by the nuts. And L.A. was the whole world to me.

I synced L.A. to narrative early on. The Sunset Strip--a scandal-rag haunt of dissolute celebs. Beach jaunts--imbued with bad juju. Negroes and Mexicans hobnobbed in cliques and kicked up sand as they sauntered. I watched them. I got little-kid race-o-phobic and xenophobic. They were alien intruders. L.A. was everywhere and thereby planet Earth. They were humanoids from satellites named "Watts" and "Boyle Heights."

My father explained geographic law to me. L.A. is a sweet deal. Everybody wants a taste, and you can't blame them. Sweet deals always go sour. Too many people want the same thing--and when it's a place to be, there's trouble.

Prescient prediction. Expansion, overpopulation, racial rancor. Smog-smeared days in a horn-honking hellhole--enjoy this place while you can.

I did.

I bopped back and forth between parents. The shuttle shot from Santa Monica to Hollywood. I went from cool air to hot air within 30 minutes. I dug the Goody-Goody Drive-in in Santa Monica. I dug the Scrivner's Drive-in in Hollywood. I dug bright pastel stucco in Santa Monica, still fresh new paint. I dug the wood-frame pads and space-age pads in Hollywood, all style mish-mash. I dug the L.A.-as-epidemically-everywhere world all around me--wonder-inducing environs.

The Great Wrong Place held me and refined my imagination. It stanched the big wrong wound I carried around as a stigmatized child of divorce. It carried me up to early '58.

My mother moved us out to El Monte. It was a smog-smacked suburb 14 miles east of downtown L.A. It was in the San Gabriel Valley. A freeway stretch linked a series of drab flatland towns. Dust, heavy heat, hotbox houses going up. A big L.A. expansion. Murky moons of planet Earth--scare-inducing environs.

El Monte was L.A. cut-rate. Roofs ran low. The sky came on carcinogenic. Unpaved roads. Jalopies. Lounging knots of Okies and pachucos. A non-L.A. that had to be L.A. because it was connected to L.A. contiguously.

It spooked me. It fear-juked my imagination. This new-L.A./non-L.A. was five-day-a-week exile. I pined for weekends in real-L.A. with my father. I was a kiddie captive in a straaaaange land. I wanted out. I got my wish on 6/22/58.

My mother was murdered. The crime was purely L.A.-adjacent. It was a hot Saturday night. She was out with a man. He strangled her and dumped her on an access road.

I was in the real-L.A./safe-L.A./now-non-safe-forever-L.A. that weekend. The central event of my life occurred off-page. The crime remains unsolved. Geneva Hilliker Ellroy is a ghost who haunts me in ellipsis and talks to me through flesh-and-blood women.

She has a younger sister whom I also hold dear. Betty Short ran to L.A. with the same heedless drive as Jean Hilliker. They rest dead as L.A. opportunists, and I have ceaselessly worked to recast them as L.A. immortals.

Our apartment was small and cramped. The three rooms reeked of dog residue. My father handed me my 11th birthday gift.

My mother was seven months dead. I survived the initial shock and regrouped faaaaast. I'd spent the last months of my mother's life devoured by anger and lust. She hit me once. I fell off the couch, gouged my head on a table edge and vowed never again. I loitered in the bathroom, poised for glimpses of her naked. I loved her scent. I poured her perfume on a wad of her underwear and carried it with me to smell her.

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