Friday, September 25, 2009

A Cool Six Thousand

Yes, James Ellroy could have read with drums and a saxophone behind him tonight at Philadelphia's Central Library. The jazz cadences were there — great streams of words, startling verbal BLAAATS! and outrageous proclamations. Oddly enough, the only musical reference he made was to Beethoven, whom he called "my greatest teacher."

The man is capable of great hyperbole and verbal music, but I believe his invocation of the titanic Beethoven was sincere, and it was certainly quite moving. How can he, Ellroy, complain, he said, when Beethoven wrote such music while mired in poverty and imprisoned by deafness?

"What about Thomas Pynchon and Inherent Vice?" someone asked.

"SNORE!" replied Ellroy.

"Why did you end the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy just before Watergate?" someone else (me) asked.

"Watergate?" said Ellroy. "The biggest SNORE! since Thomas Pynchon."

In short, Ellroy gave the happiest, most buoyant, most joyously self-aggrandizing performance I can remember from an author, perhaps because of a new love whom he mentioned several times and to whom he blew a kiss as he took the stage. And yet he was capable of moments of great earnestness, as with Beethoven, or in reply to the inevitable question about his writing process. Such a question often induces groans. Here, Ellroy somberly outlined his procedure: For Blood's a Rover, his new book, a four-hundred page outline, research reports, then sitting down and making the stuff up.

Of special interest, perhaps, was his answer to the questioner who asked "Why Los Angeles" as the archetypal noir city?

"Because Raymond Chandler wrote there," he said, and because that's where the movie studios were, and that's where the great films noirs were made.

More, perhaps, to come.

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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16 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Oddly, this is somehow exactly what I would have expected from him. He's a larger than life personality, so he may as well flaunt it. I think the mistake would be to think that he was not also morally serious because of that.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

I've never read anything by Ellroy. What would be a good one to start with?

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a wise comment, Seana, and one worth remembering. I suspect that many people find the combination of outsize antics and moral serioousness startling or difficult to reconcile. I'll call it surprising, and I'll also say that I believed every serious thing Ellroy said. He said some other things worth repeating, sometimes serious and antic at the same time.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, I'm no Ellroy expert. I know only L.A. Confidential and The Cold Six Thousand. The former might be a good place to start, if only because you might be familiar with the story from having seen the movie based on the novel. The Cold Six Thousand has odd rhythms, but it's a grand and funny spectacle. I'd say try that and, if it's a bit much to take, don't give up; try one of Ellroy's earlier books.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Thanks for the suggestions. I had seen LA Confidential but I wasn't aware or had forgotten that it was written by Ellroy.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

I always hesitate a bit to mention this piece, because it is very sad, but Ellroy wrote this piece for Newsweek last month about the death of a friend's child. I think it's very good, and it lends a sense of proportion to his more usual over the top writing style and persona.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Redactor said...

Didn't Ellroy rip off his new novel's title from Pynchon? Blood's a Rover was considered as a title instead of V., I believe I read that somewhere. Bad form for one novelist to diss another this way. I've read Ellroy, his stuff is OK, but he's no Pynchon.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's quite a piece. He thinks about bereavement a great deal more seriously than most people do. He didn't get as deeply personal in his public appearance in Philadelphia, but flashes of seriousness did shine through, even one of something that could be called humility. There's a trait not often associated with Ellroy.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Redactor, I can't read Ellroy's mind, of course, but he made the Pynchon remarks in good fun and high spirits. I would in no way consider them serious criticism of Pynchon

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, further apropos of that article, I've often contemplated the inevitability that all writing about death -- and almost all crime writing is about death, in the form of murder -- must fall short of the immensity of its subject. Ellroy's piece confronts this head on in a way that few crime writers do.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Yes, I think his essay is extremely unsettling because somehow it makes the randomness of fate very real. It's funny how tragedy strikes us as bad news that's happened for the very first time. I don't mean that cynically--we all know bad things have happened before. But somehow the individual instance has the capacity to get to us as if we had never considered that this is the world we are living in.

One thing I like about the British soap opera that I am slightly addicted to, Eastenders, is that people do just die suddenly. I mean, your favorite characters--hit by a car, or whatever. I don't say that there is no emotional manipulation, or plot considerations, but somehow it does manage to capture the extreme randomness of life in a way that other fictional constructs do not.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Maybe it was just the luxury afforded by emotional distance, but I found the article sad and bracing at the same time because it dealt with subject with more truth and honesty than is usual.

Eastenders must have been around for a while. It seems to me I've read references to it, probably in crime novels.

September 25, 2009  
Blogger seana said...

Oh, yeah, it's been around forever. Luckily for me I have friends in town who follow it devotedly, so there are at least a couple of people to talk to about it here.

September 26, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I wish I could remember where I'd read the references and what those references were. I get the feeling that authors use it to signify a sort of British Everyman, if there is such a thing.

September 26, 2009  
Blogger Lou Boxer said...

BLOOD'S A ROVER is one of the best books I have read this year. As a matter of fact, I am on my second go around with ROVER. As for it's tile, it comes from A.E. Houseman's poem "Reveille":

Wake: the silver dusk returning
Up the beach of darkness brims,
And the ship of sunrise burning
Strands upon the eastern rims.

Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.

Up, lad, up, 'tis late for lying:
Hear the drums of morning play;
Hark, the empty highways crying
'Who'll beyond the hills away?'

Towns and countries woo together,
Forelands beacon, belfries call;
Never lad that trod on leather
Lived to feast his heart with all.

Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.

Clay lies still, but blood's a rover;
Breath's a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey's over
There'll be time enough to sleep.

AS the title of the poem implies, "Reveille" is a battle cry for the armies! And what an army Ellroy delivers.

Thomas Pynchon is no Ellroy.

September 28, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ellroy opened his performance with a brief quotation from T.S. Eliot and, of course, discussed Beethoven at great length, even humming a few bars from the "Eroica" (though less successfully than he recited Eliot). This may not be what one expects from an author who is the focus of a personality cult like Ellroy's. He's a fine guide to the dark and bracing places in great art.

September 28, 2009  

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