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James Ellroy: The Poet in the Porno Bookstore

June 12, 2014

Perhaps it’s a sign of old age, but I’m looking forward to reading the critical reaction to James Ellroy’s new novel Perfidia almost as much as I’m looking forward to reading the novel. Ellroy has always been a canny writer in generating critical interest. On the one hand he is a wild man figure, the Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction decked out in garish Hawaiian shirts, spouting outrageous right-wing views and howling like a dog. And yet to many critics his writing transcends the crime genre and becomes something much more powerful. In France, his books are read as social commentary, and his deep knowledge of poetry is all too often overlooked despite frequent poetic allusions in his novels.

Ellroy’s skill as a publicist has been to merge these two roles, so the reader, critic or interviewer will never quite know how he will react and whether or not he is being sincere, or performing, or both. In his essay ‘Where I Get My Weird Shit’, Ellroy describes a period in the mid-1970s when his search for creative inspiration coincided with some of his worst experiences of drug and alcohol abuse:

I read books and shagged epigrams and insights. T.S. Eliot. Highbrow shit. “We only live, only suspire, consumed by either fire or fire.” A classy fuck flick: The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann.

The Eliot quote, taken from ‘Little Gidding’ in Four Quartets, was to be the epigram of Ellroy’s unpublished novel ‘LA Death Trip’. The novel was extensively rewritten and re-titled Blood on the Moon (1984), with the Eliot epigram dropped in favour of a quote from Richard II. The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann (1974) was a hardcore porn film directed by Radley Metzger and starring Barbara Bourbon in the eponymous role. I will leave it to Ellroy to describe the plot to you:

Pam Mann’s a horndog. She’s a passive punchboard and a seductress. She’s a nympho candide. She’s the poster girl for ‘70s excess. She fucks half of New York City in one day and comes home to fuck her husband. He’s the best. She really loves him. Her day was satire and a goof on inclusion. Sex is everything and nothing.

I haven’t seen the film (you’ll just have to take my word on that), but I have read up on it and there is a further twist (no pun intended) to the ending which I won’t reveal here. One of Ellroy’s first jobs was at the Porno Villa Bookstore, but he was fired after stealing from the till. Really, when you can’t trust pornographers what’s the world come to? Let’s assume Ellroy came across The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann while he was working at the Porno Villa. It clearly left an impression on him, not just due to the ample charms of Barbara Bourbon, but because it was a memorable film with a strong story. Years later, he would weave the themes of pornography and voyeurism into his work. There are innumerable examples from his novels. The snuff film which features in the second Lloyd Hopkins novel Because the Night (1985) is memorably grisly.

The Eliot epigram from ‘Little Gidding’ never appeared in one of his novels; however, a writer as powerful as Eliot could easily influence Ellroy’s work in more ways than a mere epigram. Eliot, incidentally, was a keen reader of crime and detective fiction, so Ellroy’s admiration for him seems apt. As David E. Chinitz wrote in A Companion to T.S. Eliot (2009), Eliot may have preferred genre fiction to more serious, literary forms:

The fiction he (Eliot) admitted to reading was of another sort: the comic stories of P.G. Wodehouse, and the detective novels of Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie and others. Eliot was in reality no friend of the sacralization of high culture that readers came to associate with him

I believe that the image of Ellroy (even if it is very carefully crafted by the author) working at the Porno Villa and jumping between porn and T.S. Eliot for creative inspiration as he nurtured his dreams of becoming a great crime writer, should appeal to fans of books of all genres.

I have found a trailer for The Private Afternoons of Pamela Mann. Apart from the grating narration, it does seem like a very good, Woody Allen-like, film:

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