L.A. Inconsequential: Erstwhile Teen Sleazeball Hits the Wall


That old saw that you should never meet your literary heroes ought to extend to their memoirs: Too much anguished explication of thorny inspiration can be at least as disillusioning as gross social ineptitude or dog-doo breath. Witness James Ellroy’s Destination: Morgue!, a collection of previously published nonfiction pieces plus four short stories, three of which are new and compose a “novella.” The book’s most confessional entries, “Where I Get My Weird Shit” and “My Life as a Creep,” regurgitate biographical material Ellroy mined more poignantly in 1996’s My Dark Places, and—other than cementing his reputation as the deb-stalking beat-off king of Hancock Park circa 1966—add little beyond a few generalities concerning his literary gestation (“Novelists mold memories and conceits. Their images replace colored blocks and click to cohesion. Plumb lines appear”).

Such details may delight fans, but the repetition in these pieces suggests that Ellroy has reached a dead end: Not only has he flogged his sleazeball credentials into tiresome mythomania, his clipped, alliterative style has devolved into unintentional caricature. Destination: Morgue!—a double-edged title if ever there was one—also shows Ellroy’s fixation with police procedure (on display here in the cold-case cul-de-sacs “Stephanie” and “Grave Doubt” and a hagiographic profile of L.A. County D.A. Steve Cooley) congealing into an infatuation with cops themselves. This identification somehow emboldens Ellroy to pass judgment on public reprobates like Robert Blake and Bill Clinton (for whom he expresses, in a characteristically self-righteous assessment, “a well-reasoned and morally sane hatred”), and removes any doubt that Ellroy shares the retrograde conservatism that gives his characters their loathsome dimension. All this makes approaching the collection’s fictional second half, which contains some of the old Ellroy magic despite titles like “Hot Prowl Rape-O” and “Jungletown Jihad,” a bit like being invited for a swim after having seen your host pee in the pool.