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THIS STORM: Ellroy comes home

June 24, 2019

For the following post we welcome back to the blog James Ellroy aficionado and all-round good guy Jason Carter. 

It’s the summer solstice, and it’s shitting rain.

Normally I hate storm clouds and rain during summertime, but today it’s rather appropriate.

Under a water-logged and overcast sky on Earth’s longest day, I entered the Tattered Cover, an iconic Denver literary institution. Nearly a decade ago, (October 22, 2009) I met James Ellroy for the first time at this boss bookstore on Denver’s Colfax Avenue, often regarded as the longest street in the U.S., and the annual locale for a badass Denver marathon. It seems appropriate then, that the Dog would return to this same location in his now hometown to introduce his new literary symphony, the ravishingly raucous and rain-reamed This Storm.

I’ve heard Ellroy’s “Peepers, prowlers, panty-sniffers” schtick plenty of times (it never gets old) but it’s always enjoyable to watch the shocked and astonished responses from people whom have never experienced an Ellroy reading.  Typically, these unlearned ones are quiet, conservative little old ladies, and there were quite a few in attendance.

Beyond that, the audience—pock-marked with refugees from the sunken Alamo Drafthouse—was much more diverse this time than in 2009, and I’d like to think there were plenty of new and potential Ellroy fans present. Right from the start, Ellroy told the double-digit crowd to refrain from asking him any questions pertaining to contemporary American politics and/or the current occupant of the White House.  “I live history, I breath history.  It’s not 2019. I pay no attention to what some people have called a tumultuous political climate.” This Storm and only This Storm was the star of the show.

This Storm and Perfidia celebrate the hard-charging, shit-kicking World War II America,” Ellroy began, calling his new novel “an instant American bestseller published to thunderous acclaim.”

Regarding the novel’s incendiary cover art, Ellroy bludgeoned any ruffled sensitivities.  “Dig it, it’s a Swastika—can ya dig it?” the Dog taunted.  “Live with it, it’s ok, calm down right now.”

tattered cover ellroy 2

Ellroy’s trademark profanity was a dynamic and conspicuous no show throughout the night, and there was a respectful and dignified reason for that: Tattered Cover’s presentation dais just happens to be in the middle of the children’s and young adult literature, so in a display of his copious morality and empathy, the Demon Dog went fuck-free, and even refused to read any passages from the book in regards for the numerous young children there. It was absolutely the right call. “There’s nothing I can read in this book that doesn’t have any reference to sex or pornography or profanity, so I’m not going to,” Ellroy told us.

“I expanded the text to enhance the emotional lives of the protagonists,” Ellroy said of the book’s production, launching then into brief summaries of most of This Storm’s major characters. “I live with their eyes.  I breathe with their soul… I loosened the constraints of my admittedly sometimes constricting staccato short sentence style in order to give you intimate access to my protagonists, who are the wildest bunch of mofo’s I’ve ever written in one book.”

Plenty of patrons asked Ellroy questions, though most of them weren’t about his new book. Helen Knode, the Demon Dog’s second ex-wife and current girlfriend, was seated directly behind me, and asked most of the Storm-specific questions.  “Helen’s read the book,” Ellroy said, pointing at her.

I asked Ellroy whether he felt Joan Conville was the novel’s conscience, and even quoted how the red-headed army nurse admonished Whiskey Bill Parker just like a guilty conscience would. He seemed to like my idea, somewhat. “No, Kay Lake is the conscience of the novel, but yeah…”

Always a master of nuance, the Demon Dog also threw his loyal readers a bone that may just explain his endearingly contradictory ways: “I’ve got the twin influences of my life in my head at all times: One, the Lutheran church, two, Confidential magazine: the moral vision and the sin at full blast, and F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that the definition of an artist is someone who can hold concurrently two diametrically opposed points of view and retain their sanity… that’s me.”

Before closing out his speech with his standard recital of Dylan Thomas’ “In My Craft, or Sullen Art,” the Demon Dog left us in no uncertainty about his historical impact: “Who’s the greatest artist ever spawned by civilization? To me, it’s Beethoven, and if I am indeed the American Beethoven, I would call Beethoven the German Ellroy.”

It’s quite common for successful writers to be asked “what advice would you give to aspiring writers?” Most get away with “write what you know,” but Ellroy has for many years delivered a far more personal and pertinent instruction: “Write the kind of book that you like to read.” Tonight, he expanded on the genesis of that wisdom. “I was always looking for a giant book that would hold me longer than four or five days… Nobody was writing these books, and so many, many decades later—now—I don’t write what I know, as much as I write the books I wish I could’ve read as a kid that nobody else was writing.” I can relate to that. I waited years and years for a writer to directly explore Ellroy’s countless contradictions, and it never happened… until I did it myself.

Watching the Demon Dog interact with his fans afterwards gives you the sense that anyone who has ever accused Ellroy of being a pessimist and a misanthrope would stand severely corrected if they ever attended the autograph component of an Ellroy book reading (try it out sometime, Mike Davis). Ellroy was in great spirits this evening, and his enthusiastic gratitude seemed to pervade the whole room. In short, whomever said you should never meet your icons, has clearly never met James Ellroy.

When it came to my time, Dog signed both my hardcover and uncorrected proof of the book, and though we didn’t have much time or room to talk, the Reverend Ellroy endowed me with an august benediction: “Keep reading, big Jason”.

Yes sir, I certainly will.

Welcome home, Dog.

 

Jason Carter

This Storm third

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    June 24, 2019 10:54 pm

    It’s a good thing Ellroy was able to adapt to the situation, but one has to wonder about the awareness level of any organizer who thought having a James Ellroy event in the middle of the kid’s section was a good idea!

    You mentioned having only a short amount of time to chat with him-did you have a chance to bring up your idea for a podcast interview?

    • June 25, 2019 1:43 am

      Thanks Dan. Yes, I sure did speak to Ellroy about the podcast, and he said he’d call me. He has at least one more date on the U.S. leg of his tour, and I’d imagine he’s off to France after that (the Demon Dog is enormously popular in France). So, it might not be for a month or so. I hope it happens.

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