Monday, March 14, 2005

James Ellroy - Maestro

I've been listening to The Big Nowhere on audiotape again.  I'm following the labyrinthine plot with much more ease this time around.  The killer still seems to come out of nowhere--but it's the story of Danny Upshaw which amazes and humbles me.  When I first read the novel, which is an epic reimagining of the LA police culture circa 1950, I considered it to be the most racist, homophobic pile of shit ever collected between two covers.  Then it grew on me.  Writers of the stature of James Ellroy and Joyce Carol Oates inhabit their characters' skins, they dream their dreams and experience their traumas.  Their characters live and make choices.  Ellroy and Oates aren't afraid of large, operatic gesture, because they're always connected to their characters' inner lives.  Thus, when (*spoiler alert*) Danny Upshaw first puts a gun in his mouth and gags on the taste of oil and then decides not to go out that way, but takes a serrated kitchen knife and slices his own throat ear to ear, rather than come out of the closet as a gay man, it is an act which is firmly rooted in character.  It is also literary hyperbole.  I hated James Ellroy for it.  But that's because I confused the attitudes of the characters with the attitude of the writer.  And the more I meditated on the issue, the greater the divide between the two grew.  Ellroy exposes the mendacity and horror of the 50's, the age of hysteria, nuclear weapons, communism, the birth of sexual politics, with his characters.  He doesn't preach from the point of view of an omnicient narrator.  As a result, his impact is far, far greater.  Danny Upshaw commits suicide because he too greatly fears the truth about himself.  Who among us does not know somebody, somewhere, who has done the same?

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