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In Dog Years: Ellroy at 70

March 4, 2018

Today is James Ellroy’s 70th birthday, and to mark the special occasion, we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter…

A popular myth says that dogs age 7 years for every one year a human advances.  Today, March 4, 2018 James Ellroy, the Demon Dog of American Literature, and our closest approximation to a human-dog hybrid, turns 70.  With people living well past that today (70 is the new 20!) it’s no longer a number as daunting as it once seemed… until you actually get there yourself.

According to the dog to human ratio, Ellroy the dog at 70 is the canine equivalent of Ellroy the human at 10…   As the Demon Dog himself often says, “Grok the groin-grabbing gravity” here!

Ellroy’s 70th trip around the sun is a seminal occasion in this old dog’s momentous life.  At 10 years old, the central event of Ellroy’s existence arrived—the horrid and brutal murder of his mother. Ellroy has spent every waking moment since then reminding us all that he is still, and forever, that 10-year-old boy, beset with an ambiguous bereavement.

Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet begins and ends the exact same way… an old man looks back to a chaotic and beautiful time.  As Ellroy completes his Second L.A. Quartet—an expansive immersion into the era immediately preceding the action of the original Quartet—the Demon Dog joins Bucky Bleichert and Dave ‘The Enforcer’ Klein in doing the exact same thing—looking back, and like so many of Ellroy’s bad men, coming to terms with his mortality.

When I suggested to Ellroy once that he introduce and screen one of the numerous documentaries about him at the Alamo Drafthouse as part of his now-iconic monthly Denver film series, the Demon Dog declined, replying in a manner even I wasn’t prepared for:  “My ego’s not as big as it used to be…”  For a man who has spent a lifetime making a brashly outsized ego an indelible component of his public shtick—indeed the flagship product of the Ellroy brand—this is a stunning admission.

Yet, Ellroy’s introspection—and its implicit capitulation—is at odds with the Demon Dog’s determined personal challenge to make every successive novel more complex and engrossing than anything that preceded it, an action which clearly invokes Dylan Thomas.  And while Ellroy is famous for concluding his book readings with Thomas’ 1946 poem “In My Craft or Sullen Art,”  it is another Thomas work—perhaps the Welsh poet’s most notorious—written just a year before Ellroy was born, that the Demon Dog is emulating most fervently:  This devoted dog is rage, rage, raging against the dying of the light.

In a 2009 interview conducted by his then-girlfriend Erica Schiekel, Ellroy said “I don’t wanna be one of these older guys that write skinnier, and skinnier, and skinnier, and more and more solipsistic books… I wanna write big motherfuckers full of density, history, and I want to change.”

Perfidia, Ellroy’s first novel following that interview, certainly upheld that commitment, as the book—701 pages in hardcover—was the Demon Dog’s longest ever… Ironically while also being a comprehensive micro history—its story unfolding over just 23 sin-sational days in 1941.

In a January, 2015 appearance on PBS’ Overheard with Evan Smith, Ellroy sounded like a more cantankerous incarnation of Cormac McCarthy’s Sheriff Ed Tom Bell as the Demon Dog used Perfidia to denigrate the disingenuous distinctions of a classless era.  “[Perfidia] is a broadside against minimalism, irony, and all things picayune in the [contemporary] culture… Everywhere you go [today], there’s a gigantic ad with blood sucking vampires, dystopian end-of-the-world hoo haw, poor people transported to the planet Jupiter, so rich people can inhabit planets closer; a quasi-Marxist vision made by movie studios looking to reap half-billion dollar profits… this is a good culture to deny.  This is a good culture to time travel back to another era.”

A disdain for popular culture has remained an Ellrovian hallmark since the Demon Dog’s first novel Brown’s Requiem, a work in which the narrator and title character, Fritz Brown (Ellroy himself in all but name), rails against American “optimism, boosterism, and yahooism that [opts] for sentiment over truth every time”. Interestingly enough, in an introductory essay for a 1994 hardcover reprint of Requiem, the Demon Dog seems to chide the youthful naiveté of this quote when Ellroy says “It takes a while to learn to imply rather than preach.”

While Ellroy spurns popular culture, which ostensibly includes the goofy excesses of astrology, he is quick to tell you that 1948, the year of his birth, was the Year of the Rat in Chinese Astrology.

Criticisms of popular culture aside, it is worth noting that 2018 and 1958 are both Year of the Dog.

A typical Ellroy introduction at either a book reading or film screening will often include the Demon Dog’s recitation of “Little Gidding.”  It’s a 1942 poem that stands as the last of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, and explores the connections of the personal, historical, past, present, spiritual renewal, and the burden of experience, ultimately espousing Eliot’s belief that humanity’s gross mismanagement of life leads to severe imbalance and war.  However, this turmoil can be overcome, Eliot assures us, by recognizing the lessons of the past—a softer way of saying “accept responsibility for your actions or inertia”—this is a prime educational tenet of Ellroy’s cannon also.  The past, present and future are unified, “Little Gidding” tells us (or, as Ellroy often phrases it, “then is now.”), and understanding said unity is inescapably essential for salvation and growth.

Ellroy has said for decades that he believes his murdered mother mounted a valiant—though ultimately unsuccessful—fight for her life in her last moments, violently scratching and clawing at her attacker.  It seems Jean Hilliker Ellroy’s only child is doing the same as he defiantly stares down the sunset.  Rage, rage, rage.

Look at this bittersweet, elegiac moment as a neon-lit, kaleidoscopic fever dream panoply with a white noise soundtrack of TV fuzz:

Ellroy at 70. 

Ellroy at 10.



 Closure is bullshit. 

Ramification without end.

 The Contained Apocalypse.

 These mental machinations can drive a person insane.

The “Contained Apocalypse” is an Ellrovian construct that utilizes past violence, particularly that of the 1940s and 1950s, to allegorically explicate contemporary violence… a notion that also echoes the Demon Dog’s lifetime quest to obliterate the fatuous myth of “closure”.  Ellroy discussed the concept at length shortly after the 1992 publication of White Jazz: 

“[My books] reflect the 1990s.  I’m just juxtaposing 90s violence in a more contained fashion, back to the 40s and 50s… And I think people want to know why…  And I think I give them some answers… I think that The Big Nowhere was set in 1950—but 1950 is now… I think that the same things that were going on then, are going on today—only now everything has a name… Back then, everything was hidden… It was the more contained apocalypse…”

Twenty six years later, these words—originally spoken amid the chaos of the 1992 L.A. Riots—have lost no relevance.  Ellroy is an elder statesman and a battle-weary warrior whose words injure as much as they instruct.  The lesson this ninth grade dropout teaches is lingering, painful, and sparing of no one; something the Demon Dog alludes to when he says “If you find my books difficult to read, imagine how difficult they are to write.”

The years of struggle have certainly left their mark:  Ellroy’s squamosal, coronal and lambdoidea skull sutures are clearly showing, and I can only imagine the ferociously obsessive and endless mental firestorms that pushed them to the surface, the same way that subterranean magma gradually sculpts the land above.

Still, the inevitabilities of age aren’t all doom and gloom… Ellroy has made his complete lack of hair a humorous refrain; something he often references when he encounters another bald patron (“Hey brother—LOVE your haircut!”), or—more frequently—when he sees an enviously full head of hair (“Can I get a hair transplant?!”).  As my hair has always grown thick, full, and fast, I am often the subject of Ellroy’s tragically optimistic request.  (In fact, Ellroy often introduces me at the Alamo Drafthouse as “This is Jason Carter… wouldn’t all of you like to have hair like Jason?”  I often respond with “Anytime you want that hair transplant, Dog…”)

Ellroy loves pitbulls.  When he signs books, he’ll frequently draw a likeness of one of his two pitbulls, Dudley, or the dearly departed Barko, on the page. They’re clearly his favorite dog breed, although Ellroy professes a passion for all animal life (something that compelled the Demon Dog to adopt a vegetarian diet for a time several years ago).  When speaking about pitbulls, Ellroy frequently cites the dog’s legendary intelligence and loyalty as some of his favorite canine traits.

As a dog lover myself, I’ve always seen Ellroy as a German Shepherd, recognizing in the Demon Dog the shepherd’s strength, work ethic, athleticism, fierce intelligence and unsurpassed loyalty…  It’s no wonder those dogs are the preferred breed for the military and police agencies.

Ellroy’s energy is ecstatic and infectious.  I’ve spent enough time with Ellroy the past two years to say with absolute certainty that the Demon Dog at 70 years old, has more energy—mental and physical—than many people one third his age.  He’ll attribute his boundless stamina to his constant coffee consumption (“Can’t make the scene without caffeine!”), but I believe Ellroy’s spark originates from a deeply intrinsic need to outrun the squalid and feckless years of his youth (Ellroy’s 1996 memoir My Dark Places provides a raw and rapaciously readable account of this downward spiral).

With three more volumes to go in the Second L.A. Quartet, and Ellroy’s ruminations about a possible post-war trilogy after that, the Demon Dog’s final sprint is looking more and more like an ultra-marathon with no finish line, or at least an unwanted one…

Fuck closure.

Happy Birthday, Dog.


Jason Carter

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