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American gusto: James Ellroy’s ‘Widespread Panic’

By Adam Rivett
Pimps, peddlers and private eyes populate the latest novel by the ‘L.A. Confidential’ author

James Ellroy is too much, all the time, and both the man and work only grow grander. The four books that made his name – The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential and White Jazz, collectively known as the L.A. Quartet – are densely plotted, bravura efforts by any writer’s reckoning, crime or otherwise. Yet they now seem almost quaintly approachable. After gifting the world another grandly titled series of books that widened his political and international scope – the Underworld U.S.A. Trilogy, consisting of American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood’s A Rover – he returned to the familiar terrain of mid-century L.A., publishing two books that form half of what has been termed the Second L.A. Quartet: Perfidia and This Storm. Reworking old material and returning to old characters, the new books merge the obsessive procedural focus of Ellroy’s earlier work with the dense, telegraphed prose and multi-narrator approach of his later work.

Ellroy possesses a truly American gusto, operating at a perpetually maximalist scale. His fiction tilts relentlessly at the idea of connection – between crime and motive, evidence and conclusion, history and individual – rendered on the largest stage possible, and he is increasingly committed to sincerely treated notions of love, honour and redemption. In a world of padded-out novels, overworked “writing retreat” sentences and timid irony, Ellroy is manic, romantic, obscene and almost embarrassingly ambitious. Yet in This Storm something failed to cohere. The plotting was byzantine almost to impenetrability, its romantic heedlessness flirted with schtick, and its violence and obsessiveness started to feel rote. A re-reading in preparation for the next volume might prove me wrong (and hey, I’m hoping), but it was the first time I feared burnout and, worse still, redundancy.

It’s therefore with great pleasure that I report that Ellroy’s new novel, Widespread Panic (William Heinemann), forms no part of a larger series or story, and is little more than 300 pages of juiced-up prose, possessing no ambitions beyond low fun and cheap highs. By far the least essential book Ellroy has published since his 2004 odds-and-sods collection Destination: Morgue!, it’s also the holiday I suspect he and his fans needed.

I’ll get to the plot, but first, let’s talk prose. Here comes Freddy Otash, Panic’s morally dubious narrator, introducing himself in a representative passage:

I’m corrosively corruptible and tempted by the take. I live for the scurrilous score. It’s my existential fate. I had a squaresville home life in bumfuck Massachusetts. My mom and dad loved me. Nobody butt-fucked me in my basinet. I live by a cool-cat code. There’s shit I won’t do. My code got catastrophized on 2/4/49.

There’s variation to the book’s hyper-hepcat approach – Ellroy can go technical for the crime scene size-up, and let loose when it’s required for a pell-mell action set piece – but the fundamentals remain in place from page to page: alliteration, effrontery, self-consciously dated argot letting you know just where you are and, above all else, a delight in dirt. Like all late Ellroy works, the only rule is compression. Short, sharp, punchy – got it? The book’s key influence is also central to its plot: Confidential, the 1950s celebrity scandal rag that Ellroy has previously mimicked and drawn inspiration from, often in the form of short “journalistic” inserts between chapters. Freddy, a disgraced cop, now works as a shakedown snoop for Confidential, using contacts and dubiously obtained kompromat to build his bankroll and work his way into the hearts of women. Old cases return as vengeful ghosts. There’s lots of sex and gossip, and some far more serious criminality sitting just out of view, if dangerously adjacent to the lives of the rich and famous. Oh, and some significant criminality performed by the celebrities themselves.

The influence of Confidential is given more page space than in Ellroy’s previous work – the novel is all tattle and scoop, blackmail and gladhanding. The hushed-up scandals of the stars had formed a crucial part of Ellroy’s earlier L.A. novels, with his plotting often bringing criminal and celebrity into close proximity, but Hollywood was always used as colour, relief, subplot. Here it takes centrestage, as stars and showbiz types become the engine for murder and multiple modes of malfeasance.

Unlike his most recent novels, which restlessly move between numerous voices and perspectives, Widespread Panic is a straight shot – one voice, one narrator. It does however feel slightly narratively ramshackle at times, for a very particular reason. Originally published as an ebook novella in 2012 under the title Shakedown (which now constitutes roughly the first hundred of Panic’s pages, in a slightly different form), Ellroy has extended the life of his earlier effort by simply tripling Freddy’s caseload. Unlike the carefully calibrated plots of many of his books, which all revolve around an initial murder, this feels like three unique tales wedged back-to-back (an old murder and a suspicious widow, leading into a case of Hollywood communists, leading into, wildly enough, a James Dean–led criminal crew); they’re bound by location, coincidence and sensibility, but otherwise have little in common. If it’s a failing of perfected form, it’s a forgivable sin. The book’s plot proceeds in a spirit of greedy accrual: when in doubt, throw another celebrity on the fire.

If the novel’s lack of a stable through-line is a forgivable weakness – for example, Ellroy introduces us to Freddy confessing his sins in modern-day purgatory, before promptly dropping that angle altogether – Freddy presents another failing of sorts. Like many of Ellroy’s cops and crooks, he’s based on a real-life figure, however fictionalised and distorted he is here, and while he was amusingly grubby during his bit roles in earlier novels, what Freddy possesses in crude energy and prose pyrotechnics he lacks in depth. Like the book as a whole, he works best when following a scuzzy line of improper inquiry.

Then there’s the matter of the book’s deliberately offensive language, and the frequently outrageous misdeeds it has its dead celebrities perform. Ellroy, it seems to me, is a moralist of a very curious kind. Regularly tagged as a conservative writer – though one, if my research is anything to go by, whose fanbase tilts aggressively left-wing – he is, as with most genuine artists, a truly inscrutable and irresolvable figure. His guiding ethos is most aggressively and bluntly stated at the start of American Tabloid: “It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time. Here’s to them.” If this sounds crassly worshipful of power and power’s rationalisations, just wait until you move your way through the rest of his gripping, overwhelming and often repellent tomes, which by their end would surely strip you of any illusion of decency or nobility co-existing with power, however noble the self-regard of the characters.

Ellroy’s romanticism – so curiously and inextricably linked with his clear-sighted pessimism – often humanises his books against the ceaseless corruption and violence. It’s arguable, on first inspection, that this is what Widespread Panic lacks – it’s a happy roll around in the mud for 300 breakneck pages, with its occasional gestures towards redemptive amour less than convincing. But the same moralist pens these pages, rerouted from the grander world of politics to the simultaneously grander and lower world of celebrity gossip rags. (Now we have our own inevitable crossover of the two, where cultish dolts don red caps and politicians crave the status of celebrities, writing children’s books and bloviating on podcasts.) We’ve never been more enamoured and moved by the collective dementia of celebrity, and never extended cruelty more swiftly to those same people we claim to revere. Like American Tabloid’s time-defining bad men, the muckrakers and smut peddlers of Panic are our shameful ancestors, sans shame or rationalisation.

Ellroy, for all his bluntness, sees clearly. While most of his “Hollyweird” riffs are familiar – no one, for example, will be shocked by the Rock Hudson revelations found in Widespread Panic – even his wilder, near-slanderous exaggerations about the private lives of Nick Ray and James Dean feel like comic riffs on fame’s false currency, mere tampering with figures too readily lost to sentimental mythologising. It also helps that Ellroy’s hyperbole and bad taste inventions are so broad and comic that only a dullard could mistake the legend for fact.

There’s always been two James Ellroys: there’s the studious, silence-enriched nerd who crafts doorstop volumes in isolation, an actual human as genuinely unknowable to me as to any other fan or reader; and then there’s “James Ellroy”, the self-conscious performance of the same name, a one-man band dedicated to ridding the world of book-festival solemnity and sleep-inducing readings. They’re not cleanly divisible, of course – the comic energy of the second bleeds into the rigour of the first, so to speak. The first has his name on all the books, while the second is responsible for some incredible talk show appearances. The highest praise I can give Widespread Panic – a weird, raucous, digressive piece of literary insolence – is that it’s the closest you can get to spending time with the second James Ellroy while still honouring the first.

Adam Rivett

Adam Rivett is a Melbourne-based writer. He has written for The Lifted Brow, The Age, The Australian, Island, Fireflies and Seizure.

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