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James Ellroy – Tory Mystic?

August 3, 2013

In his autobiographical essay ‘The Great Right Place’ James Ellroy describes himself as a Tory Mystic:

L.A. had overdosed me. Extreme stimulation had fried my brain pan. I had raped a beautiful place. I had usurped its essence to tell myself sick stories. My mind was infused with an L.A. virus. Wrong L.A. thoughts and undue L.A. stimuli could unravel me.

I believed it then. I don’t disbelieve it now. I was a tory mystic then, and I remain one.

Ellroy uses the term to explain his complex relationship with LA. His love of his home city, a loyalty to an institution or place bordering on Romanticism might loosely parallel Tory attitudes to national history and identity here in the UK. Still, it’s a conspicuous use of a political label which appears to be an oxymoron, and I quizzed Ellroy about it in an interview reprinted in Conversations with James Ellroy:

Interviewer: So did you choose “Tory” because it seems more nuanced? It’s not a particularly American term “Tory,” it’s distinctly British.

Ellroy: Yeah, you’re right, I did it for just that reason. Because right-wing is loaded.

Looking back, I see that I was wrong to say Tory is a distinctly British term. Tory was a common term for a loyalist before and after the American Revolution. Many loyalists fled to Canada where the Conservative Party are still known colloquially as Tories to this day. However it is rare enough in modern American discourse for Ellroy to adopt and adapt it to his literary persona in order to avoid the label right-wing.

To analyse Ellroy’s political views and the extent his politics can be found in his novels is no easy task. For some critics like Mike Davis, Ellroy is ‘a neo-Nazi in American writing’. Other readers may think that his tales of LAPD corruption and political conspiracies are some kind of angry, left-wing indictment of the US. I would argue that both views are wrong and that Ellroy’s Toryism relates to a British literary tradition known as Tory Anarchism. Peter Wilkin has written a book on this phenomenon, The Strange Case of Tory Anarchism (2010):

The idea of a Tory anarchist was first coined by Orwell to describe both Jonathan Swift and himself, and at its broadest it describes someone who is both a radical and a traditionalist. To be a Tory anarchist, then, is to embrace all manner of contradictions. It is a defence of good manners, good grammar, local customs and practices, respect for the individual and for privacy and an overwhelming hostility to the expanding power of the modern state. Tory anarchists celebrate Britain’s class system but at times condemn all classes for their role in Britain’s decline. They believe in both the idiosyncratic qualities of the British and at the same time mock their hypocrisy, stupidity, philistinism and vulgarity. Orwell saw Tory anarchism as a part of Britain’s, mainly England’s, rich social history, manifesting itself in particular figures at different times and places.

James Ellroy by Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY

James Ellroy by Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY

Daniel McCarthy argues that the term could be applied to many American figures, independent of references to the English Class system or its customs, ‘Tory anarchism isn’t really an idea at all, just a intuition.’ So many of the writers who have been or could be labelled Tory anarchists John Osborne, John le Carre, Christopher Hitchens would be horrified at the term. For many on the left, being a Trot is okay, but to be Tory is unacceptable. In a sense it describes a contrarian, a left-wing figure with conservative tendencies, or in the case of Hitchens, someone who moves further to the right. Hitchens was known for his far-left views early in his career, writing for the Socialist Worker and protesting against the Vietnam War. At the same time he enjoyed dining at right- wing clubs, where he once ate pudding called ‘Bombe Hanoi’. One of my favourite Hitchens anecdotes is the time he claimed Margaret Thatcher showed him, shall we say, the smack of firm government. Ellroy expressed admiration for Hitchens. They shared a hatred of Bill Clinton. Ellroy’s criticisms of Clinton usually refer specifically to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, as to be fair, Clinton’s brand of triangulation, third-way politics seemed just as slippery as Ellroy’s views.

Ellroy the contrarian often delights in offending people, even groups of people who are usually offending each other. In an interview with Keith Phipps, Ellroy describes a book reading of ‘Jungletown Jihad’, a comic novella featuring some hilariously politically incorrect depictions of Muslim terrorists: ‘The walkouts I get from reading this are hilarious. I was just at a book fair in the South. I knew I’d get ten liberals and ten Christians walking out, and I did.’

Ellroy, however, has at times taken offence when people push him for some political statement. He once told Craig McDonald that he felt no obligation to let his views be known:

Interviewer: You’re asked to weigh in a lot on topical matters—everything from politics to the death penalty.

Ellroy: Here’s where we get to a point where I coin a phrase. Actually, my wife coined it: “The specious proximity of media.” Why—this happens all the time, particularly in academic communities—should I comment on George W. Bush? This is like going to England and the little guy with a brogue says, “Hey lad, what do you think of the Troubles in Northern Ireland?” Or, you go to Berkeley and the androgynous human being asks, “What do you think of gay rights?”

Ellroy may not feel the need to evangelise his political views, but we can still imply a degree of politics in his answer to McDonald. On the subject of Berkeley, in his first novel Brown’s Requiem (1981), Ellroy displays a Tory streak in his cynicism towards counter-culture movements. Leading character Fritz Brown describes how a brief visit to Berkeley, ‘gave me the creeps: the people passing by looked aesthetic and angry, driven inward by forces they couldn’t comprehend and rendered sickly by their refusal to eat meat.’ Is Ellroy’s cynicism towards leftist counter-culture relevant? His darkest years were the late sixties and early seventies. It was a time of the Summer of Love and the Hippy movement, but for Ellroy personally it was a period of drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness and crime. In one exchange I had with him, he expressed his admiration for the patriotic, conservative values of President Reagan by comparing them to the puerile and pointless nature of Punk Rock:

I have friends, contemporaries, who were big in the punk rock movement. And it’s just silly, puerile noise to me. I asked a magazine editor, a friend of mine, a woman who’s fifty-six, “What was punk rock about?” and she said it was a reaction to Reagan. And I said history has been very, very kind to Ronald Reagan. Very kind to this man who I think even the most reluctant liberal historian would concede as being one of the greatest American leaders of the past two hundred years. He was a massive presence. He took down the Soviet Union and did amazing things, and he was flawed in other ways as well. You know, OR a bunch of spiky-chinned, purple-haired kids jumping up and down. Come on! Just come on!

There is a sense of Tory Anarchism here. The lament of the breakdown in manners and good taste compared with the admiration for a political office which dates back to his country’s independence. On the subject of the Presidency, the 1960 Presidential election is one of Ellroy’s earliest political memories:

I was for Richard Nixon in 1960 when I was twelve, because my father was. […] When I was a kid, Eisenhower had been president forever, and all of a sudden, everything in the world was all about Jack Kennedy. The primary election—I was twelve, interested in politics; my father was from Massachusetts, had an accent like Kennedy—everything was about him. He handled it with a certain ironic detachment that was appealing. He was amused, he was bemused, and people mistook it for love. Bad miscalculation. Everything was about him for some years, especially after he was elected. I couldn’t believe it, because he looked so young and he had his run and he died. It’s like being with a woman and she leaves you before the sex gets stale. You’re always going to think of her, you’re always going to want more, you didn’t get enough. That’s how America was with Jack.

Ellroy was to take these childhood memories of the aura surrounding President Kennedy and craft them into his greatest novel, American Tabloid (1995). American Tabloid covers five years of US history, beginning in 1958 and ending on the day of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. It is taken from the perspective of and even dedicated to the Underworld characters, both in organised crime and law enforcement, who conspire to kill Kennedy. Ellroy’s introduction to the novel reads:

Jack got whacked at the optimum moment to assure his sainthood. Lies continue to swirl around his eternal flame. It’s time to dislodge his urn and cast light on a few men who attended his ascent and facilitated his fall.

They were rogue cops and shakedown artists. They were wiretappers and soldiers of fortune and faggot lounge entertainers. Had one second of their lives deviated off course, American history would not exist as we know it.

It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time.

Here’s to them.

Ellroy strikes a tone which is both irreverent and profound. Although he is demythologising the Kennedy era, he feels a Tory instinct to ‘build a new myth’. American Tabloid was followed by two more novels which make up the Underworld USA trilogy. The trilogy ends with the death of J. Edgar Hoover in 1972, and by its completion, Ellroy had covered one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history: an era of political assassination, mass rioting, the Vietnam War and the dawn of the Watergate scandal. And yet despite all this, Ellroy is ever the patriot and optimist. One of my favourite Ellroy quotes came when I asked him if there was something positive in his depiction of America. He replied:

I love America and my books are all about one thing and one thing only, a man needs a woman. This is the Romantic’s code.

Romanticism and Toryism go hand in hand with Ellroy. It’s a more complex view than being seen simply as a Republican supporter. Ellroy voted for George W. Bush to ‘repudiate Gore and Clintonism and nobody hates Bill Clinton more than me’. However, he told Rolling Stone that he voted for Obama in 2008. He described his views on Obama in more detail to the Daily Telegraph:

What I do know is we’ve just concluded the most duplicitous American presidency in living memory. And the new guy is coming to grips with the facts: America has to rule the world, or someone worse than us will. A capitalist economy has to prevail, because massive social programs tend not to work. Still, I don’t think it’s that much of a shock to him. Obama is much more of a Tory than most people realized.

Ellroy sees the parallels between Obama and Kennedy. To their supporters both men embodied the hope that America was at the dawn of a new Golden Age. In his view though Obama understands the reality of politics better than Kennedy, (or perhaps Kennedy’s defenders), the limitations of his office and the need for change to be slow and in keeping with the traditions of his country. This is what makes Obama a Tory in Ellroy’s eyes.

There are many more examples of Ellroy’s political statements that I could talk about here. Sometimes he is thoughtful and nuanced and at other times he is sly, combative and relishes his ability to shock. Sometimes he can be all of these things at once. I’ll end with another quote from the author which I think sum up his views best. Ellroy is at heart a floating voter (although tribally more on the Right) who holds the Tory anarchist view that all Presidents, Democrat or Republican, do good and bad things in service to their country, and laments the fact that more people don’t see it this way. This is from my fourth interview with Ellroy:

It’s just the reluctance with which people would step back from the precipice of their own belief that shocks and appalls me. And you can’t get people to, on either the right or the left. You can’t tell a liberal, well, “read Edmund Morris’s book, Dutch: a Memoir of Ronald Reagan, and to one degree or another,” you’ll notice I qualified that, “you’ll dig Ronald Reagan.” You can’t tell right-wingers, “read any one of the great biographies of Franklin Roosevelt, step back a bit, you will dig Franklin Roosevelt.” You can’t.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2013 5:41 am

    Ellroy’s probably the most accomplished crime novelist I’ve never read, and I’ve never read him because his public persona, the whole “demon dog” shtick and political ranting, seems so embarrassing and clownish. He doesn’t even come across as an effective troll or provocateur, he just sounds like a complete hack. When I see him on talk shows and he bombs with one awkward, clumsy line after another, I’m waiting for the vaudeville piano to play him off the stage. I’m sure his novels are better than that, but at this rate I may never find out.

    Anyway this is an interesting post and you do a good job of putting his nonsense in context, but it still sounds like nonsense to me.

    • August 5, 2013 8:03 am

      Peter,

      Thanks for commenting. Give Ellroy’s novels a try. The early novels are quite strong but the LA Quartet and Underworld USA trilogy are when things get really interesting. It might put some of the ranting in perspective, although with this post I looked for quotes that were less on the ranting side. The “demon dog” shtick can be grating, but I’ve got to admit I’ve always enjoyed it. There have been times when he’s bombed on stage, but he’s also given plenty of knockout performances.

      Best wishes,
      Steve

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