Ellroy's 'White Jazz' is hard-boiled crime novel

September 13, 1992|By Todd Grimson | Todd Grimson,Los Angeles Times

WHITE JAZZ.

James Ellroy.

Knopf.

320 pages. $22. "White Jazz" is bebop noir, hard-boiled stream-of-consciousness playing changes on all our accumulated memories and fantasies of the criminal universe, tapping into our collective image-bank fed by movies, literature, and true-crime tabloid exposes. James Ellroy's new novel moves at such a feverishly clipped, telegraphic pace that it may be somewhat impenetrable to the uninitiated. For those who get it, however, it will be clear that he has truly crossed over beyond the "crime novel." "White Jazz" is avant-garde.

In Europe, particularly in France, the hard-boiled detective novel has been viewed as America's most distinctive, enduring contribution to world literature. The lineage runs from Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler through the noir writers of the '50s, Jim Thompson and David Goodis, to Charles Willeford and Elmore Leonard -- and now James Ellroy, who has achieved in his last four books an unprecedented pitch of sustained stylistic energy and innovation.

One after another highly regarded young male American novelist takes a shot at writing a hard-boiled novel, almost as a rite of passage. The temptation is irresistible. The model is Robert Stone's "Dog Soldiers," which won a National Book Award in 1975. We have had Denis Johnson's "Angels," "Straight Cut" by Baltimore writer Madison Smartt Bell, and Richard Ford's "The Ultimate Good Luck." The list should also include two of the best writers of this generation, Paul Auster and Steve Erickson, whose most successful work, however surreal, is heavily influenced by the hard-boiled tradition and world view.

James Ellroy has earned his place in these ranks, although it must be admitted he did not spring forth fully grown. No, his first several novels were semi-distinguished hack work, making him a living while he learned his trade. Some possess an uncomfortable intensity, but they are so raw, and often so clumsy, that his later work is simply in a different class. "The Black Dahlia" was his breakthrough, followed by "The Big Nowhere" and "L.A. Confidential."

It seems that setting the works in the Los Angeles of the '40s and '50s, the city of his childhood, somehow freed him. Through the profane slang, the dated vernacular, the imaginative connection with black-and-white films like "The Big Heat" and "Underworld USA" -- or the well-known parallel of the Black Dahlia case with his own mother's unsolved murder (a hauntingly suggestive biographical element that has been highly publicized) -- Mr. Ellroy found his voice, which he continues to elaborate and improve.

The plot of "White Jazz" is typically Byzantine, its first-person anti-hero tortured and corrupt, driven nearly insane by the complex pressures of his twisted life. Lieutenant Dave "The Enforcer" Klein is ordered by the Mafia (Sam Giancana, no less) to execute a hit on a witness he is assigned to protect: a boxer about to testify on mob involvement in fixed fights. This is not the first hit Klein has performed, and he always shares the money with his sister, Meg, for whom he feels an incestuous pull, although he urges her to go out with a gangster named Jack Woods.

Klein is later hired by Howard Hughes to find dirt on actress Glenda Bledsoe; instead, Klein falls for her, hard. It turns out she may have murdered her former pimp, and Klein wants to suppress evidence and cover this up, while his partner, "Junior" Stemmons, seeks to blow it wide open and take Klein down as well. Junior is taking goofballs and shaking down South Central pushers and homosexuals in Fern Dell Park. He's gone off the deep end and hates Klein to the death.

Meanwhile, Klein is investigating a weird burglary at the house of known drug dealer, a man with decades-long crooked ties to the LAPD. Everyone wants the investigation quashed except for Chief of Detectives Ed Exley (surviving from "L.A. Confidential"), who pushes Klein as part of a plot to perhaps "hang Narco out to dry."

Lucy, the daughter of the drug dealer, is revealed as a part-time prostitute, who urges certain clients to play "Daddy" with her. Someone is spying on her, renting the hotel room next door and tape-recording her tricks.

Dave Klein drives around all night, night after night, brain ticking, pulled in every direction, at the center of this web of sleaze. Mr. Ellroy portrays this misogynistic, racist, homophobic world as it really existed, not as we wish it had been. Even as his milieu terrifies, Mr. Ellroy is also often hilarious, using some of the blackest, maniacally sick humor ever seen. The narrative never slackens for a single beat.

James Ellroy's L.A. of the '50s is, no doubt, exaggerated, but the lurid myth he presents has such intensity, such violent resonance that he sends out information about the underside of America at electric-chair velocity and heat. He's not merely a great hard-boiled crime fiction writer. Let's take the leap: He's developing into one of the great American writers of our time. He extends the form to its natural, white-hot extreme.

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