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James Ellroy: Faith of a Demon Dog

February 20, 2014
Let us Pray

Let us Pray

Religion is a topic that has popped up occasionally in James Ellroy’s work. I have always found his views on the subject to be intriguing, but I have been reluctant to blog about it. After all, a man’s faith is private, and Ellroy has come across as tetchy when quizzed on it by interviewers. I don’t blame him, there is a danger Ellroy’s critics would try and use his religious views as a stick to beat him with. However, I do believe Ellroy’s statements on faith and the sometimes allusive, sometimes direct references to it in his writing are worth examining.

Ellroy’s first encounter with religion was as a child in the early 1950s. When his parents divorced, his mother Jean sent him to a Dutch Lutheran Church every Sunday on his own. Naturally, Ellroy resented her for this. His mother was trying to discipline him, and she thought some knowledge of Christianity, however vague, would shape him morally, but there was a whiff of hypocrisy. She was drinking heavily and dating men (by the social conventions of the time she may have been labelled promiscuous) now that her marriage was over. During one argument, she struck Ellroy viciously. At this stage of his life, Ellroy hated his mother and probably thought little of religious faith as a consequence. After her murder, Ellroy began to take a different view. He was now living with his father Lee, a chronically lazy man who made little effort to discipline him. As his father’s health deteriorated, Ellroy’s behaviour began to spiral out of control. The death of Lee Ellroy in 1965 meant that the last vestiges of restraint had disappeared from Ellroy’s life. His existence descended into a nightmare of drug and alcohol abuse, petty crime and sexual voyeurism. Ellroy was arrested over a dozen times and did several short stints, ‘soft time’, in the LA County Jail. In later years, Ellroy would note the irony of his life compared to his mother. She was indulging her vices at a time when it was taboo, and it may have led to her murder. As an adult, his behaviour had been marked with even less restraint, but changing attitudes in 1960s and 1970s society allowed him to indulge himself more freely.

A series of health scares led Ellroy to become fully sober in 1977. It’s fair to say that in his years of excess living between 1965 and 1977, religion was not at the forefront of Ellroy’s mind. However, in his second memoir The Hilliker Curse (2010) Ellroy describes a moment during this period when he was physically weak and without a place to stay for the night, and he had a spiritual experience which he believes saved his life. I won’t quote it here as it is on the last page of the book, but it appears to be the closest Ellroy has come to a Damascene conversion. Another theory is that Ellroy’s years of addiction and criminality were a form of spiritual lapse that he knew he was going to pull himself out of one day. Ellroy described to interviewer Martin Kihn how during one stint in jail he thought ‘[he] should’ve been in grad school somewhere’. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that when he turned to writing after sobriety, his thoughts on religion were to emerge.

Ellroy’s first novel Brown’s Requiem was published in 1981. It contains an intriguing reference to God. When, seemingly by chance, the lead character, Fritz Brown, spots a young Mexican woman connected to the case he is investigating, Brown ponders this coincidence: ‘Walter used to tell me that everything in life was connected. I didn’t believe him. Now I did. It was eerie, almost like proof of the existence of God.’ I love this quote, but I think Ellroy is primarily making a comment here about the crime genre, in a mystery of this kind, everything connects and the author is omniscient, seeing everything. Brown’s comment feels conspicuous in the novel as the character is a staunch atheist.

This would not be the only time Ellroy would use religion as a comment on the genre. In an interview I conducted with Ellroy he made a reference to Christ, and it was clear that he saw God and religion as having aesthetic purposes, defining not just his own faith but also his role as an author and distinguishing his writing from other cultural forms:

In his famous quote when he [Beethoven] started to go deaf, “I will take fate by the throat.” It’s just almost unfathomable courage. And the older he got, and he was dead at fifty-six, the more unfathomable and great and uncategorizable his music. So this is largely what Christianity asks of a writer in a secular world. Will you ascend to Christ’s example? What Beethoven asks of you, will you ascend to my example? Who do you want to be? Do you want to be Beethoven or do you want to be Hunter S. Thompson? I mean, really, do you want to go out and abuse women and use drugs and squander your potential because it’s cool. It’s one of the reasons that I devoutly dislike rock ’n’ roll and the mindset of rock ’n’ roll, and the fact that there’s sixty-five- and seventy-year old rock ’n’ rollers out there in a state of perpetual reaction and perpetual rebelliousness. And I see it a lot in Britain. These aged ass rock ’n’ rollers. Holy shit! And you’re sentencing yourself to a life of the puerile. And I would rather, and I’m not in any way saying that I’m Jesus Christ or Beethoven, I would rather always ascend because I have that knowledge that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Of course Ellroy may have ascended as a writer but he also experienced the descent of crime and sin. The struggle between these two forces has formed the basis of some of his greatest characters, and the novel in which he addresses religion most directly is, I believe, Suicide Hill (1986). On the surface, the novel appears at first to have a strongly anti-religious undercurrent to the narrative. Of the genuinely religious characters, one is a psychotic and the other is an ambitious, ruthless policeman whose Evangelical group are attempting to take over the LAPD. Two brothers, Bobby and Joe Garcia, impersonate priests to solicit donations off elderly and vulnerable Catholics, and there is even a scene where a character walks into a pornography store where the desk clerk is reading the Jehovah’s Witness magazine, Watchtower. On the other hand, all of the characters are looking for redemption in whatever form they can find it. Bobby Garcia makes a confession to a Catholic priest shortly before he is murdered in church by fellow criminal, Duane Rice:

The poor box was on the side wall near the rear pews, ironclad, but too small to hold sixteen K in penance bucks. Bobby started shoving cash in the slot anyway, big fistfuls of c-notes and twenties. Bills slipped out of his hands as he worked, and he was wondering whether to leave the whole bag by the altar when he heard strained breathing behind him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw Duane Rice standing just outside the door. His high school yearbook prophecy crossed his mind: “Most likely not to survive,” and suddenly Duane-o looked more like a priest than the puto with the alligator fag shirt.

Bobby dropped the bag and fell to his knees; Rice screwed the silencer onto his .45 and walked over. He picked up the bag and placed the gun to the Sharkman’s  temple; Bobby knew that defiant was the way to go splitsville. He got in a righteous giggle and “Duhn-duhn-duhn-duhn” before Rice blew his brains out.

Bobby is trying to atone for his sins by shoving stolen money into the poor box, but when he sees Duane, he realises only his death will fully pay for his sins. He faces his murderer with some bravery, but despite his new found righteousness there is part of his criminal life that seems to be pulling him back. He hums the the theme tune to Jaws before Duane shoots him, a reference to Bobby’s street name Sharkman which he acquired after a series of sexual assaults on young women.

Naturally Ellroy is a much better man than his ill-fated character Bobby Garcia, but the times he has come closest to Christian piety, he has always maintained a flicker of irreverence and playfulness similar to Bobby’s. In his essay ‘I’ve Got the Goods’ Ellroy describes how he was enjoying conversations about God with a Pastor in his then- home town of Kansas City, and he was interested in joining the Lutheran ministry.

My wife finds this calling dubious. She sees me as a man of soiled cloth. I wouldn’t hack divinity school. I’m too joyous and profane. I see God in foul language and sex. I’m more L.A. than Kansas City. The Lutheran Church would disdain me.

It’s not just the Lutheran Church that might find the Demon Dog a tad contentious for its taste. In his wonderful essay ‘Let’s Twist Again’ Ellroy writes of how he organised a High School reunion thirty-six years after he left John Burrough’s High. One of his former classmates, Howard Swancy, had become a pastor. In some respects, Swancy was not dissimilar to Ellroy. He had an interest in law enforcement but ‘flunked the screening process’ for the LAPD. He was also a dominant and charismatic performer who ‘liked to run the show’. Ellroy visited Swancy’s Peace Apostolic Church and makes it clear that what he heard of the exclusivist only Jesus saves theology, ‘restrictive housing law in Heaven’, was not for him. The essay ends with a touching moment when Ellroy spots a young boy in the congregation:

Howard cranked it out. I looked around the pews. I locked eyes with a tall black kid. He looked bored and agitated.

I winked. He smiled. The apostolic Church of Peace turned into the Peppermint Lounge.

I sent up a prayer for the kid. I wished him imagination and a stern will and lots of raucous laughs. I wished him a wild mix of people to breeze through and linger with over time.

It is as though Ellroy is seeing himself in the boy all those years ago in the Dutch Lutheran Church his mother made him attend. His discomfort in Swancy’s church may be just a clash of styles, as he doesn’t use it to argue atheism. Indeed, it is telling that he chose to visit. And yet, like the opposite of Chesterton’s ‘a twist upon the thread’ the most profound moment comes when he shares an empathetic look with a kid who is equally bored with Swancy’s fire-and-brimstone nonsense. As with Bobby Garcia’s death scene in Suicide Hill, the trace of the subversive drags him away from Christian piety.

Views change over time, of course, and it can be very difficult to truly know what another man thinks on a subject as big as God, especially as often we don’t know ourselves what we believe. As much as we might look at the aesthetic and subversive elements of Ellroy’s faith, it has become an increasingly direct and simple one. The subversion still remains, but any doubt seems to have evaporated. I once asked him whether he thought there was a presence of God in his writing, and his answer was as honest and direct as any interviewer could hope for:

Yeah I do. I do and I’m a Christian. I’m not an Evangelical Christian, but God and religious spiritual feelings always guided me during the worst moments of my life, and I don’t for a moment doubt it. […] And I always like getting in asides and putting it out there and stopping just short of preaching.

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