reading the ellroy biography when i should have been working

I should have gone thrifting with my day off but instead I stayed home and played with two books on the couch. There’s a newish biography of the novelist James Ellroy called Love Me Fierce in Danger by Steven Powell that I got an early copy of (thanks NetGalley!) but that was back in December, before the January release, so now I’m late to the game. Ellroy is still alive and publishing and the book seems to have moved forward and taken shape mainly because of who the biographer is (Powell’s very frank about this in the foreword). Namely, an Ellroy scholar. Sort of. I don’t imagine Powell got Ellroy’s participation on grounds of a promise to treat him nicely in the book but it’d make sense if Ellroy reached that conclusion on his own. He’s had a rough time with some recent publicity and it seems to’ve made him more of a hermit. He was clearly embarrassed when his ex-girlfriend Erica Schickel wrote a damning memoir about their relationship a couple years ago called The Big Hurt in which she pokes a few big holes in his self-mythologizing: writing about a hard-boiled crime novelist with a different name, who lives in LA and writes books much like LA Confidential and The Hilliker Curse; challenges the narrative of his much-touted and hard-won sobriety, for instance (the 21st-century lapse of which Powell confirms here in the biography). Big Hurt is mostly a memoir of Schickel’s child- and then young-adulthood and it gets pretty gutting when she talks about her earlier relationships with similar men, older men, prescriptive men—but there’s lots of gossipy popcorn stuff too. About Ellroy. His spending habits, his politics, his kinks. You can find a few instances online of Ellroy proudly telling interviewers they can ask him about absolutely anything and he’ll discuss it but that no longer seems quite the case. He’s a downright brick wall if anyone asks him about politics. (Also: if you hop onto YouTube and browse his interviews you’ll notice before you’ve seen a full hour’s footage that Ellroy has a calculated response for every possible question; says the same thing over and over, word-for-word, year after year. When someone at a Politics & Prose event in 2019 asks Ellroy a question about This Storm and then says, in response to Ellroy’s answer, “I asked the same question at another event a few years ago, about a different book, and you said the same thing,” I think the author looks visibly abashed. Maybe not.) 

The new biography is swift and I’d have liked if there was more detail about how his middle-period books like Cold Six Thousand took shape, but I understand it’s probably hard enough to market a biography of a guy who’s still alive and healthy and writing. Powell clearly wants the thing to fly. 

And he manages to do it, at least partly, by keeping his subject sympathetic from start to finish—but if Powell’s depiction is meant to manifest any of the “love” from the title it’s the tougher sort. Not that he says anything overtly scathing (not so far, at least; I’m at the three-quarter point). Just, he trains such a clear-eyed focus on the many-many stories of Ellroy’s wrose behavior, you’d think he’s got a grudge. Which clearly he doesn’t. Because the miraculous thing about Powell’s book is that the reader gets all these vivid examples about why the man they’re reading about is probably not the sort they’d like to get a meal with, the sort of person they’d renounce or call the cops on if he behaved this way in their presence, and yet, for whatever couple-hundred pages, I think even the casual reader will feel an enduring sympathy for this guy called “Ellroy” who is, in this case, the product of a biographer’s pen. A hopeless romantic, trying to write great books and to convince everyone around him of their greatness, the shadow of his murdered mother looming obsessively over everything he does, everything he writes, everyone he loves. His heavier offenses include shouting at people onstage, disrupting public events, drug abuse, some pretty egregious line-crossing with female colleagues, like the long flirtatious letters he sent a former editor. Those bits are difficult to read. She and Ellroy worked together from across the country, New York to LA, and didn’t meet face-to-face until afterward. Went to lunch in Manhattan, I think, and Ellroy again was flirty and awkward and old-school gallant—until she mentioned her husband at one point and he swept everything off the restaurant table and screamed, “YOU’RE MARRIED?!”

But again, the biographer’s talent: you want to keep reading.

Apart from that I reached the halfway point in Dennis Lehane’s terrific thriller Live by Night, which is clever and well-structured and propulsive but ultimately made me suspicious. I started to wonder if the author was interested in getting me to do anything more than turn the pages. And whether there might be anything insincere in that, as a motive. If maybe that’s a virtue all on its own.

Or if not a virtue, at least some grounds for pardon.

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