Book Review : James Ellroy - Crime Wave (1999)
O.J never screamed, "Let's nail the shitbird who killed my wife!"
The fiction of James Ellroy is some fuckin' enlightened shit. It's impossible to know if he's sincere or not when writing it, but it's so crass and daring that it's tough not to like. Nowhere outside his work you'll find dignified men letting their low, violent instincts run wild on their terrified entourage with such gleeful abandon. The man is a PhD in literary debauchery. I'm a true blue James Ellroy fan, so that's why I've decided to read his fiction/non fiction collection Crime Wave. I wanted to know if he had an extra curve ball in store for me and, it turns out he does...
Crime Wave is comprised of non fiction pieces James Ellroy wrote for GQ magazine and two novellas: Getchell and Contino. So, the main selling point of this collection, for both fans and non-fans of James Ellroy alike, is: how does he fare with non fiction? Pretty fucking great if you ask me. The first two articles Body Dumps and My Mother's Killer are particularly impressive as they begin with the same gleeful brutality most of James Ellroy's fiction begins with and from there, he gradually works in the subjective, authorial point of view. They showed how insanely absorbed into the past he can get.
The other non fiction pieces that got my attention were his meeting with the actual Dick Contino, then semi-retired and playing resident gigs in Las Vegas and his recollection of the O.J Simpson case. These were, to my knowledge, the only two times James Ellroy wrote about the present. It was fun reading about events from the post-JFK era I could actually remember and relate to. It also put in perspective the cartoon-y filter James Ellroy applies to reality in order to make it... well, Ellroy-esque. He says things about Nicole Brown that would set the internet on fire today, but since Crime Wave only attracted die-hard James Ellroy fans since 1999, everyone kind of understands there's a degree of humor to it.
Another thing about Crime Wave that struck me is the depth of James Ellroy's obsession with Dick Contino. The handsome accordionist and singer is as famous for his songwriting as he is for dodging the draft for the Korean war. Not only he dedicated a novella called Contino's Blues in Hollywood Nocturnes to the singer, but he wrote another called Hollywood Shakedown here, as well as the piece about meeting him. Contino's problems with the law and wrongful perception of him (he did draft the dodge and go to prison, but eventually went to war and was honorably discharged) reflected, at least to Ellroy, the zeitgeist of mid-century America and opened up a wormhole to his over-the-top, conspiracy theory-laden universe.
I doubt Crime Wave will get you interested in the work of James Ellroy. The L.A Quartet is a much easier and straightforward place to get acquainted with his worldview. But if you're already a James Ellroy fan, Crime Wave is the 201 class you've been looking for. It's Ellroy doing something different and stretching his creative boundaries. It's not immaculate by any means. Getchell will make you want to beg for your mother after 20 pages of over-the-top alliterations and it's like, one third of Crime Wave, but it's bold and different while staying true to James Ellroy's cynic, morbid and uncannily humorous tone. A great addition to your Ellroy collection.
This review is dedicated to Bill Crider, who loved to talk about forgotten books.