It took many night-time sittings, before going to sleep, to finish James Ellroy’s latest novel, This Storm (2019, Penguin, 608 pages, a hair-raising $33 for the paperback), the second book of his second ‘LA Quartet’.
When I discussed his last novel, Perfidia, I raised the dreadful possibility that maybe Ellroy might be past his prime.
I cannot now honestly say that he isn’t, but it might just be that he’s allowed his editors greater leeway than he should have. To sanitise his prose and rob the story of Ellroy’s trademark manic flavour.
This Storm continues a story arc set in LA during the early 1940s (so far), using most of the same characters as Perfidia. However, as ever, Ellroy is fond of killing some of his characters off along the way.
The novel tells a story unwinding in the first five months of 1942, chronicling the further entanglement of Ellroy’s protagonists in the unlikely conspiracy by a Mexican-based Soviet-Nazi alliance preparing for a post-war infiltration of the Americas. Both communists and Nazis recognising each other to be pretty much the same political commodity and aiming to … I don’t recall ever finding out what their aims really are, beyond instigating chaotic crimes playing to American war-time hysteria. These machinations, and Ellroy’s characters, are interwoven with a new heinous crime, LA’s Chinese gangsters (a little less this time than in Perfidia) and the advancing, breathtakingly corrupt plans by LA cops and others to benefit from the criminalisation of the Japanese at the outbreak of WWII.
Central to the narrative is the crooked Irish-American cop Dudley Smith, a more peripheral, if indelible figure in earlier novels since The Big Nowhere (1988). Becoming more fearsome than ever for the focus on his bizarre psychopathology.
A polar opposite to him, Kay Lake, introduced as a character in The Black Dahlia (1987) and back since Perfidia, exists to provide diary entries that inject a cooling, unifying sub-current to the latest fable. Apart from those passages, Ellroy’s earlier epistolary style seems to have been largely abandoned. His version of epistolary is actually more post-modern collage, interweaving his narratives with confected newspaper clippings, transcripts of phone conversations, memos between cops, journal entries, and so on. For verité. Sometimes to push the plot forward without involving the insight of his characters or an omniscient narrator. Keeping things out of sight and hinting at them rather than revealing the details. Like a good shadow-play.
Disappointingly, This Storm seems to have taken a long road to end up nowhere. It is not clear to me what the point was of the 600 or so pages. A continuation of Perfidia, sure. Unlike any of his previous novels, most of which were part of their own series, this one doesn’t really stand on its own, and thus far not as part of a recognisable series either.
If it is to function as part of a metaphorical storm, it is surely the lull towards the centre. When I sat under a cyclone (hurricane) in Western Australia’s tropical far northern resort town Broome, the damaging winds and rains came at the outer edges of the storm, calming to an ever more eerie stillness in the centre of the beast, and then growing to a fierceness again as the storm passed on its way. The Pearl Harbor attack, a backdrop to the first book, might be the outer edge of the storm. That might make VE and VP days the other edge. So This Storm could be an abatement before the weather picks up again in the next novel … ?
The first LA Quartet consisted of The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), LA Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1991). The rhythm to that sequence was a big bang opening with a shocking crime. Check for Perfidia. Followed by career machinations from Ellroy’s characters while pursuing both an inconvenient homosexual murder and communists inconveniencing Hollywood. Sort of check for This Storm. That would imply an implosion for some egregious piece of police corruption à la LA Confidential in the next novel, and an exacerbation of that debacle in the final instalment, to match White Jazz. It’s only a speculation. But speculation is all I have for the next five years, which is how long it took for This Storm to follow Perfidia.
Ellroy himself said that the title This Storm comes from a letter WH Auden wrote to his on-again-off-again lover Christopher Isherwood:
… and I remember taking a look at it years ago and he used “this savaging disaster”, which, to me, felt incomplete. I wanted a title for this book that reflected my themes, reflected LA in winter and reflected the Pacific coast and I came up with the words “this storm”, which I felt I’d seen somewhere previously. In the book I attribute “this storm, this savaging disaster” to Auden even though he didn’t write that complete line.
When I looked that up, it’s found in a poem dedicated to Christopher Isherwood:
So in this hour of crisis and dismay,
What better than your strict and adult pen
Can warn us from the colours and the consolations,
The showy and works, reveal
The squalid shadow of academy and garden,
Make action urgent and its nature clear?
Who gives us nearer insight to resist
The expanding fear, the savage disaster?
This then my birthday wish for you, as now
From the narrow window of my fourth floor room
I smoke into the night, and watch reflections
Stretch in the harbour. In the houses
The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes,
And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And held one moment, burns the hand.
Auden was thought a communist, or at the very least, a communist sympathiser. So the ‘expanding fear and savage disaster’ might have referred to the conflict between communism and fascism unfolding in the 1930s. Perhaps that’s in keeping with Isherwood’s observations in Weimar Germany that led him to write Mr Norris Changes Trains (1935) and Goodbye to Berlin (1939), sometimes published together as The Berlin Stories, and forming the basis of the play (1951) and film (1955) I Am a Camera as well as the Broadway musical (1966) and film (1972) Cabaret. Marvellous scenes with Liza Minelli and Michael York. Including the one where York’s character picks a fight with Nazi brownshirts, which, of course, he loses, as metaphor for what is about to happen to all Europe.
But from my own ignorant perspective (I’m no Auden scholar), the rhyme seems more a dirge. A mourning of passing time in the stultifying, class-ridden environment of the British academy, in which he was a public school teacher (the Downs School in the Malvern Hills) when he wrote those lines in 1935. Perhaps remorse for actions not taken to make the world a less stultifying place? I don’t know.
What I do know is that Ellroy turned Auden’s suggestion into a powerful slogan: ‘This storm. This savaging disaster’. Great and evocative words. Unfortunate, then, that the novel doesn’t quite live up to the chimera the words summon in my imagination. Always out of sight and reach, until the last page, when I realised I would not get even a glimpse of that menacing phantom—whatever it might have been.
Still, he has two more novels to finish up this second LA quartet. Maybe he’ll surprise me yet. Or maybe I am just not the same man who so enjoyed his previous novels, in whose shadow I assessed his last two.
After he wrote the first LA Quartet, Ellroy was and remains most often referred to as a crime writer. His books certainly focus on nominal police officers, and some pretty harrowing crimes. But since the first LA Quartet, Ellroy’s focus has really been more on a ‘secret’ history of the USA, seen through the pinhole camera of Los Angeles in the 1940s to the early 1970s. A frenzied kind of underground chronicle, full of conspiracies and nasty little secrets behind the public headlines and official records.
The Black Dahlia and LA Confidential were turned into Hollywood films, making Ellroy comfortably wealthy. Meaning he had some liberty to do what he pleased after the LA Confidential deal in the mid-1990s.
What he did with that freedom was to write the Underworld USA trilogy, spanning the late 1950s to early ‘70s in a rollercoaster ride of Hunter Thompsonesque, drug-fuelled, staccato prose-driven paranoia about everything, from the KKK (which seems as inexplicably pervasive in Ellroy as it was in DW Griffith’s Birth of a Nation) to the Bay of Pigs, and beyond, and to the ‘mob’s’ role as a Wizard-of-Oz-kind-of-prime-mover in American affairs. The Underworld USA trilogy—American Tabloid (1995), The Cold Six Thousand (2001), and Blood’s a Rover (2009)—pushed language and characters further than I thought possible. There was lunatic brilliance in the writer’s register Ellroy unleashed for that work. There was piano wire tautness to his plotting, with its epistolary interludes and manic narration. It was almost like a fever, coming on stronger and stronger, spawning wild hallucinations and convulsions, until finally breaking only in the last few pages of Blood’s a Rover.
What could he possibly do to top that?
He said a second LA Quartet, this time as prequel to the first. I’m beginning to think nothing could top that, and the first half of the second quartet strikes me as a waning fire. A blaze dying down seen in a rear-view mirror, as the author, or the reader, or both, drive away from it.
These books are a much more sedate and overly-long exposition that doesn’t have the fearful energy of Underworld USA, nor the Zeitgeist nostalgic appeal of the first LA Quartet. There are still glimpses of a frenzied Ellroy in passages of Perfidia and This Storm. But these two novels are merely entertaining. I don’t yet see anything sharp or new about them. The overarching communist-Nazi conspiracy to infiltrate the USA after the war is just lacklustre compared to the febrile, insane vision thundering through the Underworld USA saga. It simply doesn’t resonate quite the same way his ‘home-grown’ American conspiracy theories did in his earlier work.
Nor does exposing Dudley Smith as an ever more perverse and extreme psychopath do anything to add to the character’s already considerable menace, with his customary brass knuckles tucked into his waistband, like a character out of some Nick Cave murder ballad. In fact, sometimes I’m drawn to Nick Cave as being inspired by Ellroy, though there’s no evidence of that anywhere. Cave did lend his Red Right Hand ballad to the British period crime show, Peaky Blinders. And I imagine sometimes that Cave might make a verrrrry interesting cameo in any film based on Underworld USA stories. But only if he wore a wig or got a haircut.
It’s a toss-up whether Ellroy has slowed down and indulged himself a little with his latest work, or whether he stopped fighting editors who gentrified his language—or should that be ‘sanitised’—but permitted excessive length to go unchecked.
I know that the language of bigotry is out of favour everywhere today, but Ellroy paints characters who lived in different times. In times where casual bigotry was normal, and the characters of people could be determined by the way they thought and spoke of ‘niggers’, ‘Japs’, ‘ginches’, ‘chinks’, ‘beaners’, and ‘kikes’. That kind of language has been much moderated in This Storm. Along with the sharpness of his former ‘telegraphing’ style of extremely truncated sentences, devoid of adjectives and most descriptive ornamentation, leaving only blunt nouns and the most powerful verbs he could muster.
In some senses his prose in Underworld USA approached a sparse kind of oral story-telling, or a hip new kind of dissonant poetry. But only when read right—never with monotonous cadence, but always with a kind of manic energy crackling in the words and flashing with lightning rhythms.
These are thoughts that raced through my head at the speed of light as I finished This Storm, and moved on by going backwards and starting a re-read of The Big Nowhere.
And as I settle into that older work, I suddenly realise that maybe it’s not me or Ellroy who have changed, but the world around us.
The bizarre, grotesque, perverse mockery of America that Trump has made of the country so overshadows fiction that it is hard to imagine being ever again shocked or shaken by the outré, the avant-garde, or the taboo, all of which just pale into insignificance next to what has become reality wilder than the most preposterous fiction since November 2016.