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James Ellroy: From Author to Character

August 1, 2021

James Ellroy’s Demon Dog persona has certainly helped to make the author’s presence felt in both media and literary circles. Even if you have never read Ellroy, you are probably somewhat familiar with that lanky, bald author in the Reyn Spooner shirt with a penchant for barking like a dog. With a literary personality as distinct as Hemingway, Mailer or Vidal, it was only a matter of time before Ellroy became a character in the work of other authors.

Several novelists have been able to draw upon distinct chapters of Ellroy’s life, and create radically different characters as a consequence. If you were to read these novels and didn’t know that Ellroy was the inspiration for a certain character, you’d probably never guess they were all based on the same person. Let’s take a look:

Days of Smoke

Woody Haut’s Days of Smoke is an intimate portrait of Sixties rebellion, which works both as a noir thriller and a drama about intersecting lives. The novel begins with its lead character Mike Howard walking into the office of the regional US Draft Board to declare himself a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. Mike’s friend Jonathan attends the predominantly Jewish Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, where he gets himself in constant trouble for his nutty behaviour and Far-Right political views. Sound familiar? Jonathan is a thinly-veiled portrait of Lee Ellroy – the troubled teenager who would become the adult James Ellroy.

Haut understands Ellroy well after interviewing him for his book Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood, and also being my keynote speaker when I arranged an academic conference which examined Ellroy’s work. Jonathan goes by Juan, as he reasons being a Cuban right-winger will make him even more detested, and he craves the attention that comes with being hated. Mike says of Jonathan ‘(he) had more than his share of misfortunes, which had turned him into the person he now was, that this right-wing thing was just a guise, a way of separating himself from others, allowing him to become someone different, that the death of his mother was the beginning of a process that simply allowed him to shed one skin for another, though what he was today might not necessarily be who he would become tomorrow.’

Which leads us to our next portrayal.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is the sixth novel in Andrew Vachss’ Burke series. Vachss and Ellroy were friends for several years, and Vachss discussed their friendship in interviews with Craig McDonald and John Williams. In the novel, the vigilante Burke drives from NYC way out to the sticks of Dutchess County to see his friend, an ex-con counterfeiter named Elroy (note the spelling). The scene is largely comical. Burke brings his dog Pansy and Elroy suggests she should breed with his white pitbull Barko. When Burke first glimpses Elroy he describes him as ‘a tall, rawboned, slope-shouldered man with a doofus moustache. Hair cropped short, wearing tiny round sunglasses.’ Elroy demonstrates Barko’s latest trick, fitting him with a harness and urging him to pull forward ‘a low-slung four-wheeled cart […] piled high with solid-concrete blocks.’ Barko succeeds in his task, to the delight of Elroy.

This is one of the strangest portrayals of James Ellroy, as in a sense it is not Ellroy at all. This ‘Elroy’ is a backwoodsman who lives off the land. He ‘blows ducks off the water with his shotgun. Anything that had fur, feathers, or scales. He wasn’t a hunter, he was an armed consumer.’ That said, we can detect elements of Ellroy here, particularly his wild-man Demon Dog persona. This Elroy is far from being the distinguished author we know today, but he does make an offhand comment to Burke that “All I been through, man, I’m gonna write a book.”

Bandbox

In Thomas Mallon’s delightfully witty novel Bandbox, the titular magazine is a monthly publication run by the bombastic Joe Harris. The setting is 1920s New York, and the decade of Prohibition led to boom times for bootleggers and ample work for crime reporters. Working the crime beat for Bandbox is Max Stanwick, who is described as:

a successful writer of hard-boiled mystery novels, now also wrote features for Bandbox on the nation’s ever-burgeoning crime wave. The fact-checkers sometimes muttered that he had made no discernible shift from the methods of his old genre to those of non-fiction, but Stanwick’s pieces were immensely popular and the occasion of some of Harris’s more memorable cover lines: LEND ME YOUR EARS had announced Max’s recent report on a spate of loansharking mutilations in Detroit.

Mallon and Ellroy first met when they were both working for GQ magazine in the 90s. Joe Harris was based on GQ’s then editor-in-chief Art Cooper. Ellroy, like Stanwick, employed a similar prose style as a journalist as the one he had developed in his novels. If anything, the short fiction pieces Ellroy published in GQ pushed that Ellrovian style to the limits. An article Stanwick writes on the hoodlum Arnold Rothstein has the copy chief, Nan O’Grady, all of a flutter. At first Harris thinks Nan is complaining about Stanwick’s urban grammar again “some people in his piece saying ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ they’re gangsters.’ But it transpires that Nan is displeased about Stanwick making a reference to Rothstein’s ‘schvantz‘, a term she pronounces with ‘the lilting precision of a lieder singer’.

Ellroy, the Man and his (Demon) Dog

Ellroy would have never have made it into the pages of these novels were he not such a larger than life character in person, and all of that raw energy can be found in the pages, first and foremost, of his own classic works. However, whether you’re an Ellroy devotee or more of a casual reader, I can highly recommend these three wonderful novels – Days of Smoke, Sacrifice and Bandbox. Set in different eras – the 20s, 60s and 90s – and featuring three very different characters all based on the Ellroy each individual author knew, they present humorous and fascinating caricatures of the self-styled Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction. And if you struggle to find much similarity between the three characters, remember that Ellroy has always believed in standing out. No matter how much his personality may change one thing remains constant – he won’t let you forget him.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Catherine Judd permalink
    August 2, 2021 8:35 am

    This is akin to James McNeill Whistler who was the model for the artist Basil in Wilde’s “Picture Dorian Gray”; two artist characters in the novel “Trilby”; several artist characters in various Henry James novels; and “Elstir” in Proust’s “Remembrance if Things Past.” We then get Elstir in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”—but I doubt that Rlstir was modeled on Whistler.

    • August 2, 2021 9:17 am

      Thanks Catherine. I had no idea that Whistler was the inspiration for so many figures. Ellroy has some catching up to do, but with his Demon Dog persona I expect he will keep on inspiring. It would be great if Whistler served as even the faintest gender-bending inspiration for Madeleine Elster as Ellroy loves Vertigo, and I happen to know whenever he finds himself in Frisco he goes hunting down the sights from the film.

  2. August 11, 2021 10:02 pm

    Very cool Steve

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