Thursday, July 31, 2014

Memoir as Self-Punishment: My Dark Places by James Ellroy--Book Review

Photo: From the book's Wikipedia page.  This ain't the edition I read.  This cover looks terrible.  I get the reason for it, but there wasn't a better pic of him driving and investigating?

These are some very dark places, indeed.  This is a memoir / autobiography / crime procedural written in Ellroy's hyper, staccato style.  (Think of his Black Dahlia or L.A. Confidential, two classics of the crime genre--or of any genre.)  You'll learn more than you'd want to know about Ellroy as a young boy--and you'll be blown away by how honest it is.  These are things that even very honest people don't put in their memoirs, but I suspect that Ellroy likes the honesty of it, in a brutal, self-hurting, confessional kind of way.  I'm curious to know what he thinks he's punishing himself for.

The beginning portion chronicles his parents from a child's POV.  They get divorced.  His mother gets murdered.  His father becomes a useless drunk.  Ellroy becomes a nervous, high-strung, self-destructive kid who barely graduates high school.  After doing so, he learns how to B & E into his favorite girls' homes, and he doesn't do so to steal anything.  You can take it from there.  He later becomes an alcoholic / sniffer and homeless person.  He gets so bad that he develops an abscess on one of his lungs and almost dies from it.  This straightens him out.  Somewhat.

Fast-forward many years.  He becomes very successful and decides to re-open his mother's unsolved murder case.  He hires an ex-cop and they track people and things down.  Amidst all this is the most frank Oedipal writing you'll ever see, to the point that it made this reader a little uncomfortable.  Despite this, you can't help but marvel at the tremendous breath and energy of his writing, or the depth he plumbs of his feelings and thoughts.  It reads so fast, but so dense, that you wonder how he could top it with the author-read audiotapes advertised at the back of the book.  But I'll bet he does.

This book is not for the squeamish, for the crime scene descriptions, the murders detailed, and the psyche analyzed.  Ellroy doesn't come out of this especially likeable, but you'll be fascinated by his energy and writing--if you like the staccato style.  If you can't handle hyper people, you won't like his hyper writing, and you certainly won't like his hyper mind.  He comes across as a guy you'd love to have a beer with, maybe, or to talk to, because he's undeniably fascinating.  But you probably wouldn't want to be married to this guy, or to have to live with him for any reason.  I bet he'd wear ya down.  And that's me sayin' this--surprising, as I'm the most hyper and hyper-kinetic guy I know.

Anyway, his 50s L.A. is also fiendishly covered, as is the investigative process.  After the huge letdown of the unsolved JonBenet murder case I covered in my recent review of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town, this (still) unsolved murder was also a bit of a downer.  Seems like people are getting away with murder these days--literally.  (Or, in the late 50s and in 1996, anyway.)  But books like these show you what the cops are up against, and how easily a murder investigation can very quickly go to hell.  Most of the murders mentioned, covered and explained in Ellroy's book are all unsolved.  When a jury comes back with a guilty verdict for a guy from a 1950s cold case gone right, the 1996 investigators all have a party--and the reader feels like joining them.  This guy, at least, towards the end, is one that didn't get away.  But all the others do.

Ultimately, a reviewer from the San Francisco Chronicle said it best when he wrote that Ellroy's My Dark Places was "...Both a harrowing autobiography and a disturbingly fixated love story...blunt, graphic, and oddly exhilirating." 

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