Posted by: Ron Pavellas | October 27, 2015

The Unalloyed Grit of James Ellroy

Around a month ago I bought Perfidia by James Ellroy. My copy is 787 pages. I read it in two days.

The novel is copyrighted 2014 and is the most recent by Ellroy; but Perfidia is, according to the author, the first book of “The Second L.A. Quartet.” So, naturally, I had to get the first “L.A. Quartet.” I ordered this quartet, and also the “Underworld USA Trilogy,” which appeared after the “First L.A. Quartet” and before Perfidia. Upon receiving them all, I indulged in an orgy of reading over two weeks. In that I rarely keep fiction in my bookcases, you may correctly interpret my having retained all these volumes as the highest praise. I count them, collectively, as a vital piece of USA history.

Residing in my narrow bookshelf, at 90° in the clockwise direction

Residing in my narrow bookshelf, at 90° in the clockwise direction

Every volume has as major characters, in addition to fictional ones, real life politicians at all levels, real criminals and police (hard to tell ‘em apart sometimes), real FBI and CIA officials, real Hollywood stars and producers (be prepared for some shockers), J. Edgar Hoover, Howard Hughes and Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr.; also, JFK, MLK, RFK and their killers; the Ku Klux Klan and the general suppression of the civil rights of Black Americans.

More: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the internment of people with Japanese names living in the USA; riots in the L.A. ghetto; the introduction of heroin as the drug of choice, condoned, even abetted, by elements of the the FBI and CIA; the conflict in Vietnam and events leading up to it — and yet even more which you will discover for yourself..

But wait! This is not told as if in a history book. The language is at ground level, even gutter level. One gets to know the characters from the inside out. Even stone killers can fall in love. Allegiances shift and change, dangerously, constantly.  A wrong move, a wrong interpretation can mean torture and death, or at the minimum a ruined life. Verisimilitude reigns.

There are countless reviews of these works on the Internet (i.e., I didn’t count them), so I won’t expand beyond what I’ve already written. My purpose here is to bring these stories to your attention and recommend you start at the beginning.

The L.A. Quartet

The Black Dahlia (1987)
The Big Nowhere (1988)
L.A. Confidential (1990)
White Jazz (1992)

Underworld USA Trilogy
American Tabloid (1995)
The Cold Six Thousand (2001)
Blood’s a Rover (2009)

The Second L.A. Quartet
Perfidia (2014)

Wikipedia Biography of James Ellroy

Ellroy was born in Los Angeles, California. His mother, Geneva Odelia (née Hilliker), was a nurse, and his father, Armand, was an accountant and a onetime business manager of Rita Hayworth. After his parents’ divorce, Ellroy relocated to El Monte, California with his mother. When Ellroy was ten years old, his mother was murdered. The police never found the perpetrator, and the case remains unsolved. The murder, along with reading The Badge by Jack Webb (a book composed of sensational cases from the files of the Los Angeles Police Department, a birthday gift from his father), was an important event of Ellroy’s youth.

Ellroy’s inability to come to terms with the emotions surrounding his mother’s murder led him to transfer them onto another murder victim, Elizabeth Short, the “Black Dahlia.” Throughout his youth, Ellroy used Short as a surrogate for his conflicting emotions and desires. His confusion and trauma led to a period of intense clinical depression, from which he recovered only gradually.

Ellroy dropped out of school and joined the army for a short while. During his teens and twenties, he drank heavily and abused Benzedrex inhalers. He was engaged in minor crimes (especially shoplifting, house-breaking, and burglary) and was often homeless. After serving some time in jail and suffering from pneumonia, during which he developed an abscess on his lung “the size of a large man’s fist,” Ellroy stopped drinking and began working as a golf caddy while pursuing writing. He later said, “Caddying was good tax-free cash and allowed me to get home by 2 p.m. and write books…. I caddied right up to the sale of my fifth book.”

After a second marriage in the mid-1990s to Helen Knode (author of the 2003 novel The Ticket Out), the couple moved from California to Kansas City in 1995. In 2006, after their divorce, Ellroy returned to Los Angeles. He is a self-described hermit who possesses very few technological amenities, including television, and claims never to read contemporary books by other authors, aside from Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field, for fear that they might influence his own. However, this does not mean that Ellroy does not read at all, as he claims in My Dark Places to have read at least two books a week growing up, eventually shoplifting more to satisfy his love of reading. He then goes on to say that he read works by Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Posted by: Eric Gandy | September 4, 2014

The Stoner Cult

Illustration by Ryan Gajda at sundaydogparade.com

Illustration by Ryan Gajda at sundaydogparade.com

”I don’t have a bedside table. I pile my books on a pallet next to the bed, and Stoner is on the top.” This response given by a budding member of the cultural elite to the standard question from lazy journalists; What do you have on your bedside table? Giving the “right” answer is the key to acceptance by the cultural coterie. Stoner!! Say no more, you are in!

Why was it no surprise that Stoner was at the top of the pile? John Williams´ book has been the subject of numerous gushing reviews and articles in the Swedish press this year, and has been parked in the number one spot on the   best book list for months. So, for all aspiring members of the cultural elite, Stoner had been the must book to buy and display on top of your pile or coffee table, perchance also to read. It has been described as a cult book, a label often glued to books of limited commercial success, circulating amongst a select band of people in the know, the intellectual disciples. The more a book spreads to the mass market, the less cult it becomes.

Why Stoner? It is an unlikely candidate for cult status. What is it about this book that signals cultural awareness? Is it the book’s inner qualities which have attracted attention, perhaps? I mentioned the book to my friend Ron, and he asked if it was about somebody who was stoned. This of course is often a requisite for a cult book. Having now read Stoner, at the instigation of two enthusiasts who said it was so readable but couldn’t say why, I can assure Ron that main character Willy Stoner is not stoned at any time during the book.

So, what’s it about? Only son of poor sodbusters in Missouri is encouraged to study agricultural science, finds English literature more absorbing, if less useful, takes the academic road and abandons his parents down on the farm. Painful social ineptitude, neurotic wife, class differences, obnoxious in-laws, academic back-biting by power-hungry colleagues all take their toll. But Stoner puts up with all this, findings solace in the sonnets and in dedicated teaching of students with, sadly, limited interest in the works of Ben Jonson. Occasionally Stoner peeps out from his ivory tower and notes events in the world outside; the Great War, the Depression and the Second World War. These make little impression on Stoner, or the book. True to character he avoided enlistment for WWI, preferring the safety of familiar university life to a tour of Europe. The arrival of students still in army uniform announces the end of WWII to Stoner, who is more concerned with their devotion to studies than their war experiences. While his personal world crumbles around him, he escapes to his room at the university, seeking consolation in obscure literary tomes. At other times, when wife Edith is having one of her many long breakdowns, he runs the home and looks after daughter Grace – an unusual role for a father in the inter-war years. This interlude of apparent domestic bliss is cut short by Edith’s return to take over the management of home and daughter. Willy retires to his sofa existence, like the family dog.

So, why has cultural Sweden adopted Stoner at the cult book of 2014? Readable, perhaps, but this is not uncommon in books. Cult books do often tend to be more esoteric the less readable they are, and the more incredible the storyline, if there is one.

What probably appeals to those who actually read the book is the chronic drudgery and pain of ordinary life. William Stoner is ordinariness embodied, average, nothing special, almost mediocre, his one published work described – by himself and others – as uninspiring, and soon to be forgotten. Just like this his autobiography on first publication. The author gives a picture of  himself as plain, ordinary and unexceptional too.

A positive episode in the book – Stoner’s warm loving relationship with research student Katherine – is sadly not plausible and clearly out of character, a pipe dream.

Few if any of the characters in the book are likeable or attractive. Stoner is a sorry person, who just accepts humiliation after humiliation, a stayer who puts up with life on the sofa without a fight. Murphy’s law rules and in the end he dies an ordinary sort of death (sorry), seemingly to finally escape life and pending retirement. Stoner is an aggravating anti-hero. The reader is tempted to shout “don’t give in, fight for your life, or get out”, but know that the message will not reach him hiding deep in the catacombs of the university library.

Is this life what arouses interest in the book? After reading Stoner, ordinary life may seem a bit less boring, drab and painful by comparison. In fact, it works as a feel-good book for those who hoped there would be more to life.

But is this the essence of a cult book? I think not. The more popular this celebration of ordinariness is amongst the populace, the less cultish it will appear. At least to those who use it as a watershed between the cultured and the common crowd.

So, why a Stoner cult? My vote goes instead to a combination of provenance and public relations. The book has an unconventional background; obscure writer with everyday name that nobody can remember writes provincial autobiography in 1985, few copies sold and removed quickly from the shelves. Rediscovered 30 years later by enterprising publisher and re-launched in vintage series by the publisher, plastered with enthusiastic one-liner endorsements attributed to a gaggle of big-name authors. People in New York who matter in the international culture sphere embraced Stoner, and their murmurings were picked up by the sensitive ears of the Swedish culturati. They proclaimed it THE CULT BOOK OF 2014. That is, until the mainstream got hold of Stoner – and started reading it!

Eric Gandy, Contributor

Chimananda Ngozi Adiche

Chimananda Ngozi Adiche

Last year I read Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche. It was well-written and engaging, and informative about a part of the world I knew little of: Nigeria and the Nigerian Civil War.

More recently I viewed her interview (in English), along with other authors, on the Swedish Television program Babel. She was elegant and straight-forward in her responses to the moderator about her most recent book, Americanah, which I had yet to read. I have now read it, and I can recommend it to you, but…

As the title of this review suggests, Americanah was more than a story, the love story that it begins and ends with. It is not unusual to have the “top story” carry us along while the “bottom story” develops and eventually merges with or supersedes the top story.

In this case I felt the love story had much less weight than the other two messages and, therefore, made the totality of the book seem out of balance.

Other, smaller, problems I had in reading the book included that there were many Nigerian and other African person and place names unfamiliar to me and I had trouble remembering them. Also, during some of the many conversations between characters I lost track of which character was speaking.

2 books

A larger criticism of the book may be discerned by my comparing one passage (where someone reads a two-page blog article to a group of friends who were in party mode) with the lengthy radio address wherein John Galt holds forth in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. If the book had not been assigned by my book circle, I would have quit the story here, at page 325 (of 477).

However, I’m glad I continued. The author has much to say beyond the relatively tepid love story (by itself it might have seemed less tepid). We learn the important differences in other- and self-perceptions between black people born in America and those born in Nigeria (and other African countries), and with those black people born in other parts of the world, such as Jamaica, but living in the USA. These are important things to know for Americans and Europeans of any “color” or racial identification. The problem for me is that she bangs the drum very hard and for too long. I get it, Ms Adichie.

There is one story within the book about the awfulness of being an African trying to get residence or asylum in Great Britain. This was pointed out by a fellow book circle member as the passage closest to earth and the most compelling. In contrast, the characters in the North Eastern USA where most of the non-Nigerian action takes place, are generally hyper-educated and effete, in my view.

There are non-trivial passages showing us the problems of “Negro hair,” primarily for women. I have been made more alert to this issue due to my daughter-in-law having such problems with such hair.

A troubling glimpse into the some of the politics presented in the novel shows that these educated people, of any color, were enthusiastic about the USA electing a “black” person as president. The Americans depicted expressed their intention to vote for him for this reason above all others. While I think I can understand the feelings of racial pride and the feeling of Black Americans that “it’s about time,” I have trouble accepting that this should be the main criterion for electing someone. The author, through her main character, seems to be very much all right with this.

The author was clever in using the main character’s blog as a credible source for background and for lectures on race and related topics.

A poignant observation in the book accompanies the fact that the main character, from Nigeria, was many years in the USA and decided to return to her country. She had changed and Nigeria had changed. She really belonged in neither country, as others who had similarly returned discovered. The former expatriates were expatriates in their own country, and so tended to associate with each other where and when they could.

It is a legitimate but sad ending to learn that you can’t go home again.


Source of Adichie portrait

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