James Ellroy and Randy Rice
If you’re a regular reader of this blog, the chances are you read the work of James Ellroy, and if you’re an Ellroy fan, I have a question – have you heard the name Randy Rice? I began my PhD on Ellroy by studying the hundreds of interviews Ellroy has given over the course of his career. One name popped up regularly in Ellroy’s recollections: Randy Rice. Rice was Ellroy’s closest friend during his years of drug and alcohol abuse. They shared many of the same vices, but when Rice got sober this gave Ellroy the confidence to follow his lead. Despite this, I didn’t think Rice warranted much attention in a study of Ellroy. He appeared at first to be merely a footnote in Ellroy’s life. It was only when I was editing Conversations with James Ellroy (2012) that I began to think otherwise. Rice seems to be a ubiquitous presence in Ellroy’s life in the 1970s, and an allusive presence in his early novels, and in this blogpost I’m going to examine the level of his influence on Ellroy.
However, I should confess what I don’t know about Rice. I don’t know his date of birth or what he did for a living (I would guess, like Ellroy, he was unemployed for long periods of time). I’ve not been able to find a photograph, so I’ve no idea what he looked like. All I know for sure is that he was Ellroy’s friend, and this is, I believe, what’s important. Interviewer Paul Duncan described Rice as a ‘childhood friend’ of Ellroy’s, and this French website puts the year they met as 1961. In his second memoir, The Hilliker Curse (2010), Rice pops up briefly when Ellroy describes how he once sold his own blood plasma, got drunk on the money with Rice at the Pacific Palisades, and then woke up days later in bed with a woman who ‘weighed three bills easy’. To make matters more surreal, he discovered he was in San Francisco and had absolutely no recollection how he had got there. In an interview with Martin Kihn, Ellroy describes how he was living on the rooftop of Rice’s apartment building ‘at Pico and Robertson in West Los Angeles’ in 1975 when he began screaming uncontrollably and suffering hallucinations. Rice called an ambulance and, by doing so, may well have saved Ellroy’s life. A doctor diagnosed Ellroy has having post-alcoholic brain syndrome, ironically a consequence of the sobriety Rice had urged him to pursue. In the documentary Feast of Death (2001), Ellroy describes how he invented ‘Dog Humour’ with Rice. Ellroy fans will recognise Dog Humour from his interviews, book readings and even sections of his fiction. It has to be seen to be believed, but I would describe it as Ellroy developing his own schtick by being deliberately provocative and offensive in every conceivable way: sexually, politically, racially. Once every possible taboo has been broken the reader or audience will realise Ellroy is being tongue-in-cheek, relax and enjoy the humour on its own level. To be clear, I enjoy Dog Humor, and I don’t think for a moment that Ellroy is a bigot, although I can understand why some people have jumped to that conclusion.
Rice’s influence on Ellroy in formulating Dog Humour indicates that he was to have a considerable, but until now, unseen effect on Ellroy’s writing career. In an interview with Don Swaim, Ellroy said he and Rice would ‘spend HOURS hashing over the Black Dahlia case and talking about crime fiction.’ In Ellroy’s debut novel Brown’s Requiem (1981), which is dedicated to Rice, the titular character Fritz Brown’s closest friend is an unemployed alcoholic named Walter. For all his flaws, Brown regards Walter as an extraordinary person:
Walter has taken fantasy into the dimension of genius. His is pure verbal fantasy: Walter has never written, filmed, or composed anything. Nonetheless, in his perpetual T-Bird haze he can transform his wino fantasies into insights and parables that touch at the quick of life. On his good days, that is. On his bad ones he can sound like a high school kid wired up on bad speed. I hoped he was on today, for I was exhilarated myself, and felt the need of his stimulus: the power of a Walter epigram can clarify the most puzzling day.
As Ellroy based Brown on himself, there is no doubt in my mind that he based Walter on Randy Rice. At the end of the novel, Walter dies of cirrhosis of the liver and Brown is left devastated. In Ellroy’s second novel, Clandestine (1982), there is a minor character named Randy Rice, a mailman who provides the leading character, Freddy Underhill, with some information pertaining to a murder investigation. However, Rice’s appearance is fleeting and Underhill’s friendship with a fellow police officer who is killed in action may have been more closely based on Ellroy’s friendship with Rice. In an interview Rodney Taveira, Ellroy describes how a visit to the cinema with Rice gave him the inspiration for the character of Danny Upshaw, an investigator who begins to doubt his sexuality, in the novel The Big Nowhere (1988):
Here’s the genesis of Danny Upshaw: my buddy Randy Rice and I went to see the William Friedkin movie Cruising. So he’s a young cop, presumably heterosexual, played by Al Pacino, and there’s gay killings in Greenwich Village circa 1980, pre-AIDS and all that.