"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“There’s nothing you could want to know about American crime in this century,” James Ellroy promised me in an interview five years ago, “that you won’t know by the time I’ve finished these books.” “These” books were his proposed trilogy, “Underworld U.S.A.,” of which “American Tabloid” (1995) was the first. I’ve just finished Ellroy’s latest installment, “The Cold Six Thousand,” and he can stop right there, because he’s told me everything I ever wanted to know about crime in this country and a great deal I’m pretty sure I didn’t want to know and wish now I could buy back my introduction to.
Until, I guess, he writes the next one. I often feel as if I should put brown paper covers on Ellroy’s books when reading them in public; when I put them down, I feel like I should wash my hands. And, God help me, I keep right on reading. Why? Well, “The Cold Six Thousand” just made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Why do so many of you?
Because Ellroy knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and a few women, too, that’s why. We don’t read him for the mystery, because his books aren’t mysteries. (Not even “L.A. Confidential,” really; who cares about the identity of one rotten person in a city where everyone is openly rotten?) We don’t read them for their plots, which don’t equal the thrillers of Elmore Leonard. We read them to find out how evil people can be, to test the limits of our tolerance for seeing how low our species can slide.
How many other writers really understand evil? Well, Shakespeare, of course. Heinrich von Kleist (though not Goethe). Dostoevski (but not Tolstoy). Baudelaire, for sure. Not too many Brits or Americans. Graham Greene, on a good day (when he was on holiday, writing pulps like “The Third Man” and “This Gun for Hire” but not, oddly, in the Catholic novels), and Nelson Algren when he was in a really shitty mood. Ellroy may not be as good a writer as the above mentioned, but he knows a heck of a lot about evil people that they didn’t — for example, he knows what sort of hole a certain kind of bullet makes when it splats against the human skull and about the importance of taxicab stands in organized crime.
Heck, how many American writers even believe in evil? Most educated people of my acquaintance don’t — or, if they do, they see it in some watered-down form, as an unfortunate “social construct.” (I love that phrase; I used to see it about five times a week in the Village Voice.) They change their minds only on the rare occasion when the kind of horrible thing they usually only read about in newspapers happens to them. American literature has never really made room at the grown-ups’ table for writers whose primary theme was evil. The ones who got the closest, the ones who started in pulp — Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson — burned out or chickened out when it came time to attempt the work that might have gotten them into the dining room with the adults.
Ellroy once called himself “the greatest crime novelist who ever lived,” and then wrote books like “The Black Dahlia,” “The Big Nowhere” and “L.A. Confidential” to prove it. Now he wants to sit with the grown-ups, and if they don’t make room at the table he’s going to tip it over. One way or another, he means to make it, and on his own terms.
“Fuck being a crime novelist when you can be a flat-out great novelist,” he once told me — there never being a doubt in his mind that being either one was merely a matter of choice, of will. Ellroy took risks. He made a conscious decision, with “American Tabloid,” to write a book that couldn’t be categorized as a mystery or a thriller and thus risked losing his hard-won crime following.
And he almost succeeded; “American Tabloid” jerked Ellroy out of the crime fiction shelves in the big bookstores and into fiction. And, even more incredibly, Ellroy did it without changing his subject, crime, and his subtext, evil. He did it, as he told me years ago he would, by making each succeeding book “bigger, denser, more complex, more multilayered, more multiplotted, richer, darker, more stylized, dare I say it, more profound.” Dare it, dare it. That’s exactly what “The Cold Six Thousand” is — more everything, including profound. It’s also exhausting in a way that Ellroy’s writing never was back when he was cautiously probing the perimeters of genre with “The Black Dahlia.”
Fans of crime thrillers would have complained that “American Tabloid” was nearly as impenetrable as “Ulysses” — that is, if fans of crime thrillers had known what “Ulysses” is. I think Ellroy knows damn well what “Ulysses” is, and I think he has intended “The Cold Six Thousand” to be his — dare I say it — “Finnegans Wake.” Ellroy has gotten a lot of ink as a result of carefully cultivating his image as an American primitive, a natural, uneducated talent (you know, little Latin, less Greek) who has succeeded despite having written more books than he has read. But I think Ellroy has read a bit more than he lets on. Innate storytelling ability can get you through the problems of plot, but style is the product of civilization. And Ellroy’s style is what Ellroy is about, not the bloodless anesthetizing technique of so much current academic fiction but its opposite, a throbbing, kinetic, neon-lit view of the world that draws the reader into the character’s (and author’s) pain. Here, from “The Cold Six Thousand”:
Carlos laughed. Carlos howled. Carlos oozed delight.
The hit awed him.
Me, too, as did this one:
He walked. He grabbed at the cell bars. He anchored himself.
There’s Betty Mac.
She’s on her bunk. She’s smoking. She’s wearing tight capris.
She saw him. She blinked. I KNOW him. He warned me last —
She screamed. He pulled her up. She bit at his nose. She stabbed him with her cigarette.
She burned his lips. She burned his nose. She burned his neck. He threw her. She hit the bars. He grabbed her neck and pinned her.
He ripped her capris. He tore a leg free. She screamed and dropped her cigarette.
He looped the leg. He looped her neck. He clinched her. He threw her up. He stretched the leg. He looped the crossbar.
She thrashed. She kicked. She swung. She clawed her neck. She broke her nails. She coughed her dentures out.
He remembered she had a cat.
Eldon Peavy vibed butch. Eldon Peavy vibed mean queen.
Here’s a night on the town in Vegas:
They caught Dino. They caught Shecky Green. They got ringside seats. They slept late and made love.
Wayne walked outside. It was windy. It was hot. It was dark.
There — her room/her light.
Wayne walked inside. The hi-fi was on. Cool jazz or some such shit — matched horns discordant.
He turned it off. He tracked the light. He walked over. Janice was changing clothes. Janice saw him — bam — like that.
She dropped her robe. She kicked off her golf cleats. She pulled off her bra and golf shift.
He walked up. He touched her. She pulled his shirt off. She pulled down his pants …
He jammed her knees out. He spread her full. She pulled him in. She squeezed the fit. They found the sync. They held each other’s faces. They locked their eyes in.
And here’s my nominee for the Ultimate Ellroy Passage to date:
Pete pulled the blinds. Wayne hit the lights. There:
Sink water — dark pink — carving knives afloat. Baked beans and fruit flies on mold. Hair in a colander. Dots on the floor. Dots by the fridge.
Pete opened it. Pete smelled it. They saw it:
The severed legs. The diced hips. Mom’s head in the vegetable bin.
Unread primitive, my ass. I think Ellroy has read a lot of books. I’d give Felix Trinidad-type odds that the labyrinthine conspiracies surrounding the JFK assassination in both “American Tabloid” and “The Cold Six Thousand” were the result of Ellroy’s being wowed by Don DeLillo’s “Libra,” just as “L.A. Confidential” was a hostile reaction to the sentimentality beneath the surface cynicism of Raymond Chandler. Which is what made the absurdly overrated film version of Ellroy’s novel so pointless; its hard-boiled but noble cops and hookers with hearts of gold were everything that Ellroy had set out to eradicate.
Not that Ellroy is cynical, as many of his critics contend; he’s having much too good a time to be that. It’s true that Ellroy doesn’t believe that good triumphs over evil; it can’t in Ellroy’s world because good can overcome evil only by becoming evil itself, which is another victory for evil. But — and here’s Ellroy’s real contribution to crime literature, and why he’s been able to elevate it above the genre — evil can be overcome by causing it to burn itself out. To accomplish this an Ellroy “hero” (now there’s a word in need of an overhaul) must toss himself onto the conflagration, to make it burn higher and brighter.
This view of the nature of cops and crime comes perilously close to embracing fascism (what truly efficient brand of law enforcement doesn’t?), and it is precisely in skirting that razor’s edge between control and anarchy that Ellroy can be most thrilling. Make no mistake, there is no doubting where Ellroy’s sentiments lie — no more pre-Miranda rights kind of guy ever breathed L.A. smog — but it is not bigotry that lends glee to the passages in his books where cops kick open doors and burn black or Mexican hoods. He’d just as happily write books where cops kick in doors and burn Italian and Russian hoods if he could do it and still be realistic. He isn’t nostalgic for a time when white cops beat up colored crooks; those just happened to be the shades of the cops and robbers when he was in his formative years. But, like the detective in “Memento” and most Republicans, Ellroy seems to have a memory that reaches back to a certain point in time and then stops, unable to assimilate what has happened since.
In “American Tabloid” and “The Cold Six Thousand” Ellroy has expanded his view of evil to include … well, damn near everybody. He is finding a wider audience, but perhaps only because he’s widened his web of evil to include someone that everyone can identify with. My own personal favorite is Ward Littell, a mob lawyer, former Jesuit and FBI agent who embodies almost everything I hate in one handy character. Maybe your taste runs more to Wayne Tedrow Jr., a crooked Las Vegas cop whose dad is a right-wing hatemonger, former corrupt union boss and gambling casino owner. (How can one person, you’ll repeatedly ask yourself as you read this book, be so many bad things at the same time?) There is the Mafia, right-wing Cubans, the Ku Klux Klan, the Mormon Church, J. Edgar Hoover (at his most engaging, but revealed to us only through a long-running series of phone transcriptions), Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Hoffa, Bobby Kennedy, Howard Hughes, Sonny Liston and dozens of others, with Dean Martin and the McGuire sisters crooning in the background.
That’s part of the problem. They may sound great on the “L.A. Confidential” soundtrack, but there’s only so much of them that a modern audience wants to hear. Can Ellroy develop some new memories in time for the next book? Can he find a new style, can he be more profound without being bigger, denser, more complex, more multilayered, more multiplotted, richer, darker, more stylized? Because I really don’t think that James Ellroy can pile on any more “mores,” or at least no more that I can take. If Ellroy wants a prize for having created the ultimate crime novel, I’m prepared to give him one. But ultimate means no escalation from here.
If Ellroy wants to ditch the genre label, it might be time for him to ditch the territory. I mean, fuck being a crime novelist if you can be a flat-out great novelist.
Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.More Allen Barra.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)