Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing


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The Unalloyed Grit of James Ellroy

Perfidia

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

The novel is copyrighted 2014 and 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)
This Storm (2019) (On order, not yet read)


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.


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The Outsider

Starting one’s journey toward self-realization

This is one of those rare books by a contemporary author, or author of any era, which helps one understand the works of celebrated writers, philosophers, and a few artists, in this case, by putting them into perspective with each other and within a conceptual framework that gives the reader an overall comprehension of their respective contributions to man’s understanding of himself.

Another book which I found to be similarly helpful, although different in tone and approach, is one by philosopher and academic Philip H. Rhinelander.

I have long admired the written work of Colin Wilson and have also listened to him on taped radio interviews which, unfortunately, I have lost through being so peripatetic.

I believe the first book of Wilson’s I read is The Mind Parasites, around thirty-five years ago. Since then I have read many more of his books, having lent some out indefinitely, it seems. The ones I have managed to retain, in addition to The Mind Parasites, are:

The Outsider, first published in 1956 when Wilson was 24, rocketed him to fame, yet I hadn’t read his most widely known book until recently. Here is a synopsis:

…an insightful work of literary and philosophical criticism—a timeless preoccupation which perhaps garners more mainstream attention than his subsequent writings on the occult and crime. The book is structured in such a way as to mirror the outsider’s experience: a sense of dislocation, or of being at odds with society. These are figures like Dostoevsky’s “Insect-Man” who seem to be lost to despair and non-transcendence with no way out.

More successful—or at least hopeful—characters are then brought to the fore. These include Steppenwolf and even the hero of Hesse’s book of the same name—and these are presented as examples of those who have insightful moments of lucidity in which they feel as though things are worthwhile/meaningful amidst their shared, usual, experience of nihilism and gloom. Sartre’s Nausea is herein the key text—and the moment when the hero listens to a song in a cafe which momentarily lifts his spirits is the outlook on life to be normalized. Wilson then engages in some detailed case studies of artists who failed in this task and tries to understand their weakness—which is either intellectual, of the body or of the emotions. The final chapter is Wilson’s attempt at a “great synthesis” in which he justifies his belief that western philosophy is afflicted with a needless “pessimistic fallacy”—a narrative he continues throughout his oeuvre under various names… [Source].

Colin Wilson (1931 – 2013)

The Outsider has been and will continue to be, especially valuable to me because in it Wilson discusses many of the authors and their works I have read, some mentioned in the pages of this journal, including:

In no way have I given you the essence of The Outsider in this brief discussion. It is a very important book to start one on one’s journey to self-realization or to help the older of us to make course corrections toward realizing our fullest possible potential.

I can say that engaging in armchair philosophy might be helpful, but insufficient. One must act.


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Absolute Certainty

A Fictional Take on the French Revolution

Within the last few years my delayed education in history has been improved by my reading of books about and involving the French Revolution, such as Fatal Purity: Robespierre and French Revolution by Ruth Scurr and The Roads to Modernity: The British, French and American Enlightenments by Gertrude Himmelfarb.

raseroNow I have come upon a book entitled Rasero. Although the word is given as the name of the main character of the book, it is not a proper noun and, in Spanish, means “leveller.” I received the book in exchange for another I gave to a correspondent in the United Kingdom. We met, online, through BookCrossing.

Rasero, by Francisco Rebolledo and translated from the Spanish by Helen R. Lane, is well-reviewed here.

The book turned out to be a page-turner for me. Through a fictional character we are introduced, intimately, with major characters in the era of The Enlightenment, and those leading to and participating in the French Revolution of 1789. The major sections of the book are entitled: Diderot, Damiens, Voltaire, Mozart, Mariana (a fictional character), Madame de Pompadour, Lavoisier, Robespierre, and Francisco Goya.

The author uses a clever device to lead us into the future to see the putative results of the Enlightenment, namely, the uses of science and technology to improve, and make more disastrously efficient, warfare. The device used is Rasero’s visions of the future upon achieving orgasm, which he has with many lovely partners, but no visions with the one love of his life. Although somewhat ribald, the author’s depiction of the pleasures of the flesh are not, in my view, to the main point of the book and are offered in a pleasant, almost poetic, manner.

The voice in which the novel is written was strange to me at first. There is an omniscient observer describing to the main character what he is experiencing, and the reader is witness to this one-way conversation. “You” is constantly used by the narrator to tell Rasero how he is feeling and what he is experiencing. There is a twist on this near the end which I will not reveal.

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A depiction of the event wherein the head of King Louis XVI was severed from his body by The Guillotine, his public execution having been ordered by “The Committee of Public Safety”

The main point, I feel, is made in this passage where Rasero is hotly criticizing Robespierre for not stopping “The Committee of Public Safety” from executing Pierre Lavoisier, the eminent scientist and chemist:

Power…has corrupted you. No one has yet been born who, reaching power, is not corrupted, and you…are very far from being the exception…You’ve acquired absolute power. a power that allows you to cut off lives, the way one snips flowers in the countryside. And that power has corrupted you absolutely…

Rasero ponders elsewhere in the book that Robespierre’s vision of the correct society, one based on rational principles, is so “correct” in Robespierre’s mind that it overtakes all other considerations. Even as he is led to the guillotine to lose his own head where countless others through his agency have lost theirs, Robespierre has absolute certainty he was and is right (my emphasis).

A scholar on the subject summarizes thus:

Robespierre’s failure can be viewed as that of a man so narrow-minded in his views that eventually he cannot conceive of anything outside of them, a man so firmly convinced of his own absolute rightness that he cannot see the glaring errors he makes. It had grown inconceivable to him that anyone should oppose him successfully, and when someone did, the blow numbed him into inaction for a while. Although he started out with the best of motives, it came to the point where protection of the ideals for which he stood was everything to him, whereas protection of the people whom the ideals were originally to protect meant nothing. [Source]