In “Love Me Fierce In Danger: The Life of James Ellroy,” Steven Powell has produced an uneven account of a writer who is equal parts a profane and politically incorrect performance artist and a talented novelist. The reader comes away from this at times frustrated by the book’s timidity. It reads like the volatile novelist was sometimes looking over Powell’s shoulder as he typed.
Powell recycles information from Ellroy’s often self-indulgent, occasionally confessional autobiographies; in one, “My Dark Places,” he confesses that as a child, he wished his mother dead (“I hated and lusted for her”) and it would be granted when an unknown assailant raped and murdered her in 1958 — a crime unsolved to this day — when he was 10. Years later, he still seems angry at her when he coldly and clinically describes her murder: “It was sex gone bad. They were in his car down lover’s lane and it was her time of the month.”
In another memoir, “The Hilliker Curse,” he sets out to chronicle his pursuit of strong women, but the book soon descends into Ellroy’s primary focus of how, when he was living with a permissive father, and later as a homeless drug addict, he burglarized homes to sniff women’s underwear. Indeed, in interviews he prefers talking about this rather than the craft of being a writer. When he does wander over to his profession, it is merely to proclaim himself the greatest novelist since Dostoyevsky.
As in interviews, the net effect from Powell’s book is that Ellroy really means it and it is not a perverse persona constructed to sell books. If one were to seek out Ellroy’s polar opposite in this regard it would be Stephen King. King can be as demented and perverse as Ellroy, but King is charmingly self-deprecating about what he can and cannot achieve as a writer. King is also a much more generous writer toward those just starting out. Unlike King, Ellroy has no interest in sharing the nuts and bolts of what he produces because he truly believes it is futile. He can never have an equal.
On more overtly literary matters, Powell is much more independent-minded in his assessments (perhaps Ellroy left the room). He shows a writer with an enormous work ethic. But he parts company with Ellroy when he declares his later books better than his earlier ones. What has occurred since “American Tabloid” (1995) is a non-reader-friendly style of relentless declarative sentences inserted with scandal mag alliterative jargon. He is less Dostoyevsky and more a National Enquirer writer with an editor who hates long sentences and passive voice.
By contrast, in his breakout novel, “The Black Dahlia” (1987) and even more so in “The Big Nowhere” (1988) — my favorite as well as Powell’s — Ellroy had a more linear plot that built suspense, and had a canny sense of what to withhold from the reader. Like the best noir writers, Ellroy knew how to tantalize readers in order to keep the pages right up until a satisfying payoff.
Politically Ellroy is a rarity among novelists in that he is right-wing. But it is an unattractive version. Ellroy is more authoritarian than libertarian. Despite his novels about bent homicidal cops, he is positively worshipful of the strong-arm methods of the LAPD, even going so far as to defend their actions against Rodney King. “The fifty-six hammer blows that put Rodney King on the ground, and the contact slash don’t look good, but moment to moment the entire three-minute tape leads me to say, and I realize this is revolutionary, I don’t think they did anything wrong,” he once said.
Read in this light, and given his lingering hatred for his mother, this may account for why there are no characters with a moral compass in his works; there’s no one to root for. No matter their sex or race, they all indulge in cruelty, and for Ellroy, the more perverse the better. There are no characters who transcend their immorality and “do the right thing.”
Still, there is something inadvertently attractive about Ellroy when he momentarily drops the solipsistic hipster act and indulges in brutal honesty. Few novelists today praise Ronald Reagan and denounce Obama (“the cancerous face of socialism”) and Trump (full of “volcanic self-pity”).
When Powell is equally bold toward Ellroy, such as calling his latest works mediocre, the biography soars. It is only when he accepts Ellroy as the potty-mouthed narcissistic persona that the novelist presents to the world, that the biography falters, and we are left with what only Ellroy wants us to know about him.