It says a lot about James Ellroy’s reputation as the so-called ‘demon dog’ of American literature that a recent review of his latest doorstopper of a novel, This Storm, suggests that “he may have gone mad”.
It says even more about his reputation that the line wasn’t necessarily meant as an insult.It also raised an interesting question: was he ever sane?
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After all, Ellroy’s own life story needs no embellishment. In 1958, his mother was raped and murdered in California, an event which understandably scarred the 10-year-old and led to his later obsessions, such as the infamous Black Dahlia case.
Following his mother’s gruesome murder, the young Ellroy led a chaotic lifestyle worthy of some of his characters. Burglary, petty thefts, drug dependency, brief stints in both the army and jail and a life spent following the American nightmare all helped propel him to the position he currently enjoys, alongside the likes of Don DeLillo, as a masterful and uncompromisingly bleak chronicler of his country’s underbelly.
This Storm, which picks up where 2014’s well-received Perfidia left off, is the second instalment of his second LA Quartet series, which acts as a prequel for the first LA Quartet.
That may seem confusing to those who haven’t read Ellroy before. To those who have, however, it’s business as usual.
This Storm is, even by the author’s own standards, a hugely ambitious, exhilarating, engrossing and absolutely infuriating experience.
Often reading like old-fashioned telegrams from the mind of a madman, he writes in a syncopated jazz style that virtually becomes its own language, as dependent on rhythm for meaning as it is for words.
Where Perfidia began just before the Pearl Harbour attack, This Storm is set in the subsequent months. Anti-Japanese sentiment is at its highest, cops in LA are already preparing lists of Japanese people in preparation for Roosevelt’s infamous Executive Order for their subsequent internment and the weather, as the title suggests, is lousy – an almost Biblical indication of the conflagration to come.
While ordinary citizens bunker down in the blackouts and prepare for an invasion, the monstrously corrupt Irish-American cop Dudley Smith is having a whale of a time smoking out fifth columnists, Japanese subversives, Nazi spies and communist sympathisers.
On that element, it’s very much a Boy’s Own adventure if that particular boy had been sent to a reform school in Hell – virtually all the characters, particularly the returning Dudley, a fixture from previous novels, are either morally compromised or morally bankrupt or, in certain cases, simply insane.
Events start with a badly burned body uncovered after a mudslide, a navy nurse who drunkenly kills a bunch of Mexicans when she rear ends their car and a brilliant Japanese-American forensic scientist, Hideo Ashida, who still seems to maintain some semblance of a moral compass, but has been blackmailed into doing Smith’s bidding.
As ever, the writing is snare-drum tight, managing to be both brittle and uncompromising: “Rice banged on the door. Music snapped off inside. A skinny Jap opened up. He was TB-ward thin. He had gassed hair topped by a jigaboo hairnet. He had pinned out, darty eyes. Ooga-booga. He put out dat fear stink.”
After more than 500 pages of that, you’re either hungry for more or ready to hurl the book across the room – or, more likely, you’ll want to do both at the same time.
In his customarily sly fusion of real-life characters with his own creations, we encounter such historical figures as the infamous radio-racist and anti-Semite Fr Charles Coughlin, and even Orson Welles, who is ‘persuaded’ to turn rat on his leftist compadres.
This Storm, like most of Ellroy’s work, would never fall into the category of easy reading, and the prose, which somehow manages to be both sparse and dense at the same time, is vaguely reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy.
Like McCarthy, those who fail to tune into Ellroy’s unique tempo are left wondering what all the fuss is about while the people who like him, love him with a religious passion.
This Storm isn’t quite the masterpiece it has been hailed as, but it remains another fine example of one the darkest and most inventive minds working in American literature today.
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