Friday, 2 October 2015
Perfidia - James Ellroy
"The looming apocalypse is not of our doing. We have been good citizens and did not know it was coming."
I am sad to say that this book was a disappointment. I have been reading Ellroy with excitement since the late eighties, working backwards and looking forward to each new book but this is the first new book to disappoint me.
I'm not sure why. I will have to return to a favourite some time to see if it is just this book or if some spell cast by Ellroy's manic distillation of paranoia and gift for creating voices that carry the whiff of a genuinely authentic desperation has lifted.
I imagine the first, and as a reader all you can do is trust your own instincts.
One of the issues that I had were some of the glaring inaccuracies, particularly in relation to Irish history - For example, Ellroy has rubber bullets used in the Irish War of Independence in 1920 but they were invented and first used in Northern Ireland during the 'Troubles" in the nineteen-seventies. We get Padraig Pearse five years after his execution:
"Dublin. Grafton Street, '21. Black and Tans with rubber-bullet guns. They aim for the kidneys. It still hurts when he stoops.
A rally. Patrick Pearse in full cry."
Even better, the Black and Tans then execute Lazarus Pearse.
"The Black and Tans murder Patrick Pearse. There's a firing squad. He's got a bull's-eye pinned to his chest."
These are from the memories of one of Dublin's most famous fictional sons, Dudley Smith, who, we are told, was brought to America by Joe Kennedy:
"Joe Kennedy lived in Boston. Joe was filthy rich and donated money to Irish causes. Joe financed his citizenship. The price was strong-arm work."
These lines read like notes toward a character sketch. There is a difference between editing a book down to the essential phrases, as Ellroy has appeared to do in the past and just including phrases. Unfortunately that seems to happen a lot in Perfidia. Rather than being distilled for extra strength it feels like this has been watered down.
His association of Russia with "gruel and lezbo discus throwers" also seems to belong to a different era, the era of the sporting cold war.
But I've never gone to Ellroy for history, although he has presented himself as a historical novelist. I have always felt that it was the unutterable tension in his books, which, although fictional, was unbearably authentic. It always seemed like psychobiography smeared all over the gossip mags and newspaper headlines that gave names to the characters.
His stock of characters, 'real' and invented, perform a high wire soap opera where the fat lady gets shot before she has a chance to sing and the story goes on, and on. Some on the invented characters feel real, at least when you are inside their head. Others operate simply as versions of the two roads in Robert Frost's poem, representing choices, perhaps even a shot at redemption for irredeemable characters. But redemption is always compromised, and mostly fleeting in Ellroy's world.
Here, it felt to me that he was using these characters because they gave him a shorthand that allowed him to use the frisson of knowing where these characters are going. This allowed him to get the effect without putting in the work. I kept getting sucked outside the story by a sense that the characters were just flagging the deja vu that was to be inspired by events yet to happen. Their reading of the potential outcome of WW2, Japanese internment etc smacked of lazy retrofitting rather than giving me any sense that the characters were capable of such clairvoyance.
With a title taken from a song associated with Glenn Miller perhaps we're entering ELEVATOR ELLROY territory where the fingernails ripping across bleeding paper exorcisms of his personal demons has been replaced ever more fully with a sort of smug belief in his own powers that fatally undermines them.
The book centres on the period before and after Pearl Harbour, with the internment of Japanese Americans providing much of the novel's spine. The murder of a Japanese family with fifth column connections is the key event. Hideo Ashida, the only Jap left free is brilliant, gay and fatally attracted to power and childhood friend Bucky Bleichert, a boxer on his way to being LAPD muscle. Dudley is working his way up the ladder between bouts of psychopathic rage, opium therapy and sex with Bette Davis. 'Whisky' Bill Parker tries to hold himself together between drinks and place himself in a position to take over as LAPD chief. His fatal weakness is for women and catholicism and the crucifixion of trying to reconcile both. He shares one of Ellroy's own traits, a voyeuristic streak which (like Dudley's key experiences in the Irish Rising) dates back to 1916 when he was fourteen and "peered in brothel windows while his father fought the Great War."
He is using and falling for Kay Lake, an explosively unstable young country girl from Sioux Falls with enough ambition to fuel the war effort. She is living with LAPD bruiser, "ex-heavyweight contender" Lee Blanchard and as well as being a siren, and a spy for Whisky Bill she also starts a relationship with the beautiful "boy-man" Scotty Bennett; "about six foot six" and with a talent for handing out beatings that's spotted and exploited by Dudley. Scotty is not just spotted by Dudley, he is also spotted by Joan Crawford. Crawford occupies a place in the Ellroy universe, his father having claimed to have been her lover, and having been her personal trainer.
The obsession with Hollywood star(let)s has already fuelled the idea of giving prostitutes plastic surgery so they will look like prostitutes a lá LA Confidential and this also leads to a plan to exploit the difficulties faced by Japanese Americans by offering them plastic surgery to hide their nationality. There are also plans to offer hiding places and also manouevering to make money out of the coming wave of internment. Someone is also buying properties from Japanese families and this may be connected to the murder of the Japanese family... And on and on in Ellroy's usual baroque intertwining of plot and character.
Racism, sexism, murder, corruption, exploitation, war, manipulation, sexual hangups, fascist tendencies and leftist agitation...the book has Ellroys signature elements but for me it just didn't gel. It felt more like Ellroy by numbers than a genuine experience, and as I consider my first reading of White Jazz as one of my key experiences as a reader this was disappointing. The elements are there but undertow is not so powerful.
Maybe Ellroy is dealing with his demons outside his fiction. He says he is now happy.
Happiness is a lukewarm gun.
I am currently working to clear up a backlog of unfinished blog posts - I read this in February so am a little hazy on detail and am actively resisting the impulse to expand the post further.
I previously reviewed Ellroy's previous book Blood's a Rover which I enjoyed far more.