James Ellroy carries the sordid history of Hollywood in his hip pocket, like a flask of bootleg hooch. Best known for the first L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz) and the harrowing memoir My Dark Places, Ellroy writes like a red-eyed marauder, spurning the rich metaphors and blue moods of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald to spit hot rivets in staccato bursts.
Noun-verb-sock-to-the-jaw, that’s his dominant rhythm, as the action drives like a prowl car up and down every garish street. Delivering the lowdown dirty on the City of Angels, Ellroy knows where all the skeletons are stowed and where all the innocent or inglorious dead are buried, and digs them out to do a Halloween dance across the voluminous pages of Balzacian epics of murder, vice, municipal corruption, police brutality, and peephole ethics.
Peepholes, wiretaps, paid snitches, break-ins, and blackmail make up the tradecraft in Ellroy’s new novel, Widespread Panic, a behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of the celebrity-scandal rag Confidential as told by its most notorious investigator and fixer, Freddy Otash, the Ray Donovan of his slimeball era.
The Great Beyond
Widespread Panic begins in the eschatological annex of Hollywood known as the Great Beyond. Freddy, our stir-crazy narrator, has been bunged up in purgatory (or, as he calls it, “Penance Penitentiary”) since his death in 1992, and the monotony is more than a man of his lurid character can bear. It’s like being stuck in a cafeteria with only one flavor of Jell-O. Heaven or hell would be preferable to this dullsville. Freddy also suffers the indignity of being poked by a pitchfork wielded by Montgomery Clift, whom Confidential had outed as “Princess Tiny Meat.”
Freddy’s only hope of being sprung is to make a full confession—not some abject statement of atonement (“Sorry’s for limp-dick losers,” he growls, always the tough guy), but an unexpurgated account of his foul deeds. To assist, his keepers have supplied him with pen, paper, and, as a research aid, a complete set of Confidential magazine, whose yowling exposés make today’s celebrity journalists sound adenoidal:
Confidential presaged the infantile Internet. Our gobs of gossip were repugnantly real. Today’s blowhard bloggers and their tattle texts? Pussyfooting punks all. We stung the studios. We popped the pooh-bahs. We hurled the hurt, wholesale. We voyeur-vamped America and got her hooked on the shivering shit. WE CREATED TODAY’S TELL-ALL MEDIA CULTURE. We crazily crafted a lurid language and made it our own.
That lurid language—“the lexicon of the lowdown”—is the only lingo the novel speaks. “I think and write in algorithmic alliteration,” Freddy proclaims. Does he ever. The typewriter clack never stops as he careens through the past. Much of the enjoyment of Widespread Panic hinges on how much of this Seymour-sells-seashells-by-the-seashore the reader can take: “My porno-prosty boys proceeded priapically apace,” “Flayed flesh flew off,” “I’m bopping the byways of big boo-hoo,” “I roared righteous and laffed lewd,” and, dig this: “I ran rapaciously rogue through all this Rebel rigamarole.”
“Rebel” is shorthand for Rebel Without a Cause, whose pimple-cream cast (James Dean! Natalie Wood! Dennis Hopper! Sal Mineo! Nick Adams!) the director Nicholas Ray has mind-melded into a prototype neo-Fascist band of juvenile delinquents who rob stores and mount panty raids—a “Juvie Jugend” under the auteurist spell of “Nazi Nick,” as Freddy puts it. If I try to explain any of this, I will only end up confusing both of us.
When not riffling alliteration like a deck of cards, Freddy/Ellroy dishes celebrity gossip rendered in period slang that pins a label on each perv: “snout trout,” “mud shark,” “semen demon,” “K-Y cowboys,” and other vocabulary-enrichers sure to get you kicked off the pageant committee. Liberace, Elizabeth Taylor, singer Johnnie Ray, Rock Hudson, future president John F. Kennedy, Dalton Trumbo, and death-row inmate Caryl Chessman are among the all-star cast of notorieties whose dirty laundry gets flapped in our faces.
Much of the enjoyment of Widespread Panic hinges on how much of this Seymour-sells-seashells-by-the-seashore the reader can take.
Much ado is made of a photo making the rounds of Marlon Brando with a penis in his mouth, and a break-in of a famous actor’s lair uncovers “Beaver pix of Eva Braun—der Führer’s freaky Frau,” a phrase that sounds like a Mel Brooks line gone astray. (The more tender treatment of actress Lois Nettleton, to whom the novel is partly dedicated, is a rare grace note.)
Unless you’re one of those Ellroy diehards whose motto is “Inject this into my veins,” the novel’s syncopated barrage of tics and brutal antics will likely become numbing, fatiguing, its peppery hyperactivity and cynical bravado in service of the sludgy attitudes of apes in boxy suits. Yet the audacity of Ellroy’s imagination remains undimmed, his energy torrential, and I laughed when Freddy, sprawled out drunk, engages in conversation with the insects in his rug: “I went eye-to-eye with a big beetle. We discussed the man-bug metaphysic.... We went feeler-to-feeler on the floor.”
Widespread Panic could have used a few more such goofy riffs, if only to vary the otherwise relentless tempo.
James Wolcott is a columnist for AIR MAIL