Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The new Ellroy and why I like it

Man, am I loving the new Ellroy* I'm sure you're all, whatever dude, you like it, that's cool, but this really matters to me.

In the late 90s, there was no author I loved more than Ellroy. I could not get enough of him. Then I read Cold Six Thousand and I felt like my a close friend had betrayed me. The book did not work for me at all. I didn't speak of his books for years and didn't recommend them. Now the new one feels like an old, but wayward friend showing up with tickets to London to see the reunited Pavement along with a tour of Irish pubs with the Pogues. All is forgiven.

Anyway, I was trying to think of why Ellroy, Thompson, Lehane, Kerr and other authors stand out for me. It comes down to world view. Many crime writers (and nearly all adventure writers) assume that the world is basically good. Their stories tell of evil aberrations brought down by shining exemplars of good. Once vanquished, the world is returned to its rightful, cheerful, sunny state.

Not so for our Ellroy and his ideological brethren. In their novels, the world is evil. The power structure exists to extract, exploit and exterminate, all the while proclaiming its goodness. The heroes in these books are damaged people who rise above their baser instincts and carve some out some small victory, often at terrible cost.

The treatment of violence in these books is markedly different. In the sunny novels, an act of violence by the hero is normally clean, and shaming. He won't be sadistic or attempt to levy justice. Violence is clearly the wrong path in these books. In the darker books, violence is righteous, cathartic and, in its own way, uplifting. The philosophy underlying these books is that some people need a beatdown and the books give us that beatdown.

The best books of the dark side nearly always have some moment where violence is meted out to those who deserve it. The scene in LA Confidential where Bud wrecks the crooked lawyer is an example. Joe Lansdale has a patient man taking an axe handle to a pair of racist fucks. Dennis Lehane's Prayer for Rain has a notable suggested beat down that had me smarting. Deep down, there is a part of us that wants to

The subtext is that the world is terrible and we can't really hope to change it, but we can make some of the jackals and vampires pay, and pay dearly. The funny thing is, for the most part I am an optimist and think most things are just peachy. When I see that view reflected in fiction, it seems mawkish and foolish, and I recoil. Some deeper part of me suspects that the world is not as nice as I hope.

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