“Call Me Dog”: My Ellrovian Journey
I’ve been fortunate to meet and correspond with a lot of avid readers of James Ellroy over the years. Some of these readers may only be familiar with one or two of his novels, others might be full-blown obsessives like me. I’m frequently amazed at how many of these Ellroy fans have met the Demon Dog himself either at a book reading, film showing or literary festival. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times and how authors need to do more and more publicity work to sell their books, but I like to think it also demonstrates James Ellroy’s kind, enthusiastic and appreciative manner. A consequence of Ellroy’s generosity of spirit is that many of his readers have their own unique Ellrovian journey: a treasure trove of anecdotes about personal experiences with the author and their own, often powerful, emotional reaction to reading his work. So today’s guest post comes from Jason Carter, a Denver resident who is also a keen reader of James Ellroy. Here’s Jason’s bio in his own words:
Jason Carter is an unofficial Ellroy scholar with 20-years of Ellrovian tutelage under his belt. A devoted follower of Ellroy since the age of 14, Jason now has the enviable honor of calling Mr. Ellroy his friend. Although, don’t think of asking Jason for any personal details about Ellroy, as Jason is ferociously protective of Mr. Ellroy’s privacy. Jason, like Ellroy, lives in Denver, Colorado.
Jason kindly agreed to write a post about his lifelong Ellrovian journey and Ellroy’s recent move to Denver, Colorado. Here it is:
I never expected an episode of television to change my life. Though today I don’t watch TV at all, twenty years ago, I did, particularly one show called Unsolved Mysteries.
On an otherwise nondescript evening in March, 1996, the show’s opening segment concerned the re-opening of a cold case that lay dormant and largely forgotten for many years: “Crime novelist James Ellroy investigates his mother’s brutal murder.” Despite being a lifelong voracious reader, I had never heard of Ellroy before this night. I was 14 years old.
As I listened to Ellroy speak about his life, career, and the still-unsolved 1958 murder of his mother, I was transfixed. Ellroy possessed an electric and naturally captivating presence I was immediately drawn to. Yet, there was also a spiritual vibration–subtle, but undeniably there—a thread to trace. A thread that, in the years to come, would take me farther than I ever expected.
Some weeks later, I was browsing in a Denver used bookshop when a large-print paperback caught my eye: Its cover image displayed a dame smoking a cigarette with a pouty, yet deceptively predatory come-hither stare. The book’s title was L.A. Confidential, and I immediately recognized its author, James Ellroy, the fascinating subject of the Unsolved Mysteries episode.
The book was a spiritual signpost, the first of many in a spectacular journey that has consumed the last twenty years of my life. I should have bought the book that day. However, momentary distraction prevailed, and I left the bookstore empty handed.
A year or so later, Hollywood’s big-budget, star-studded film treatment of L.A. Confidential debuted at the box office. I saw the film and loved it, now determined—in spite of all distractions—to begin reading Ellroy. THEN—I learned about the L.A. Quartet, of which L.A. Confidential is book #3. Why would anyone start in the middle of a series? I bought The Black Dahlia. I read The Black Dahlia. The Dahlia took me places. The Dahlia shook me places. I burned through the Dahlia in a mere three days, often reading it until my eyes stung and went completely out of focus from physical exhaustion. I knew I had found something cosmic and spectacular. I did not yet know that I had just been introduced full force to my favorite writer of all time.
Over the next 6 years, I devoured Ellroy’s oeuvre in chronologically manageable proportions, careful not to binge-read him for fear of burning out. In Ellroy’s writing I found a sculpted strength and blunt honesty which is fatuously non-existent in most writers today. During this time, I also read through hundreds of Ellroy interviews, some confrontational, some colloquial, but each serving as Ellroy’s own unique commentary on his work.
After finally reading L.A. Confidential the novel, I was quick to dismiss the film. The movie is by far the best Ellroy adaptation to date, but still seriously impaired. As just one example, I am particularly offended with Hollywood’s grossly disingenuous treatment of Inez Soto, my favorite character from L.A. Confidential the novel. Inez grabbed my heart, she’s my kind of gal: smart, ambitious, independent, tough, brutally honest, flawed, and most important of all, not afraid to love. Ellroy had the dignity to give Inez a heart, a purpose, and a life, flawed though it was. Hollywood did none of this. Inez Soto is indeed a rape victim, and her true rapists are Hollywood shills.
In 2005, Ellroy came through Denver on his tour for Destination Morgue! I tragically missed his appearance, learning about it a few days after the fact. I was crushed. I couldn’t believe I had missed my favorite writer, and lamented that this had been likely my only chance to see him. Was I ever wrong. If only I knew what life held for me in just a few short years.
“Take note of what you are seeking, for it is seeking you.”
I got another chance to see Ellroy in October, 2009, during his tour for Blood’s A Rover, the stunning conclusion to his epic Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy.
At an iconic Denver bookstore, Ellroy gave the teeming crowd a hilarious and dynamic Demon Dog performance, telling us of the adventures of Alfred A. Knopf’s signature borzoi mascot, a “bat-eared, beady-eyed, slope-snouted, malodorus, lawn-shitting, leg humping, toilet-drinking, cat-chomping, misanthropic motherfucker.”
The audience that night was a mix of aging crime fiction aficionados, disenfranchised adolescents who unfortunately read Ellroy purely for the shock value, and little old ladies who attend every author presentation the book store offers simply because it’s the next event. These dames are not unlike a particular old lady who asked Ellroy about L.A. Confidential the movie at a Kansas video store. (start at 53 seconds here).
I was seated in the front row. Ellroy gave us two dynamic readings from Blood’s A Rover that possessed more cinematic muscle than Hollywood could ever hope to muster. Then, he opened the floor for questions. “How’s your tour going?” “What kind of music do you like?” NOBODY was asking about Blood’s A Rover! “C’mon, you guys gotta have more questions,” Ellroy pleaded. An old lady asked “What did you think of the ‘Balloon Boy’ incident?” (the Denver media’s current freak show obsession). Ellroy was exasperated, “I came to Denver for THIS?!”
Then, I raised my hand. “Tell us about Joan,” I said, referencing one of Blood’s A Rover’s most pivotal—and incendiary—characters. Ellroy was instantly revived. “You’ve read the book!” he exclaimed. Ellroy and I then began an amazing personal discussion that seemed to drown out everyone else in the room.
When I left the bookstore that night, I felt privileged that I had finally been able to meet my favorite author. As awesome as it was, it was just a hint of what lay ahead for me just a few years later.
Shortly after Ellroy’s book tour for Perfidia was announced in late 2014, I posted the following message on his Facebook page: “Come back to Denver, Mr. Ellroy!” Ellroy’s Perfidia tour did not include a Denver stop. However, I had no idea at the time of just how literally my words would manifest just one year later.
Imagine my surprise and shock when I learned that Ellroy had moved to Denver in August, 2015. I was further astounded to learn that, due to Ellroy’s hosting of a monthly film series at a special theater in a south west Denver suburb, I would see him every month or so. The films Ellroy selects are dark, often obscure crime pieces that reflect many of the themes that so often appear in his novels: Murder, revenge, brutality, paranoia, abandonment, deceit, and heavily compromised redemption.
I’ve re-read many of Ellroy’s books several times over the years. Though certainly not required, I highly recommend his readers do likewise. You will gain a far more cultured and intricate perception of just how detailed and assiduously mapped out each book is. This is also why I personally don’t mind waiting many years (8 years in the case of Blood’s A Rover) for a new Ellroy novel… Each one is an absolute feast for the brain, and worth waiting for.
Ellroy’s books have helped me traverse some dreadfully difficult times in my life. His books have given me confidence when I had none. Ellroy’s well-documented struggles in overcoming his addictions helped me to finally abandon my own twentysomething alcoholism and a collegiate fixation on over-the-counter cough syrup.
I’ve bought at least 50 copies of Ellroy’s books to date. Some because I’ve re-read them to the point of structural instability, some I’ve bought for others in trying to generate new Ellroy fans.
By far the most poignant chapter in my on-going Ellrovian Journey are the conversations I’ve had with Ellroy during each of the five times I’ve met him since he moved to Denver. In short, Ellroy the novelist is awesome, Ellroy the public performer is amazing, but both are microscopically miniscule compared to James Ellroy the man.
When Ellroy is with his fans, he is very kind and genuine, acutely interested in the lives of others, and above all, monumentally grateful for his readers. That gratitude is quite conspicuous. I wish more people could see him like this—especially his detractors, or those who—fatuously—think of him only in the context of his “Demon Dog” persona.
Since I first met Ellroy in 2009, I’ve been deliberately careful to address him as “Mr. Ellroy,” his preferred moniker for those he doesn’t know. In November, 2015, during a screening of Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low, Ellroy upgraded me: “Call me ‘Dog’ ”.
In January, 2016, Ellroy announced—loudly and humorously—to the theater’s patrons that I was his son-in-law (note: Ellroy in fact has no children). I felt incredibly honored. Ellroy has certainly taught me more than my own father—a chronically unemployed 65-year-old drug addict—ever did.
James Ellroy is my greatest teacher. He has taught me lessons about morality and propriety that extend far beyond the written word. Ellroy has also taught me more about the English language than any other person I’ve ever encountered in my life—and this was all BEFORE I met him. This may sound like hyperbole to you, but it’s entirely true.
Maybe there was some seldom-used psychic brain function at work 20 years ago when I saw Ellroy on Unsolved Mysteries. Maybe that’s what that spiritual vibration was all about: An otherworldly projection able to see years into the future. Maybe I’ll never know. Maybe such a thing should forever remain an unsolved mystery.