Doctor Noir

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Author: Martin Kihn
Editor: Lawrence J. Trudeau
Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 4,885 words

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[(essay date 2012) In the following essay, originally published in 1992, Kihn describes Ellroy’s beginnings as a crime novelist, his attitude toward his work, the style and diction of his writing—which Kihn characterizes as “savage, masculine hallucinations”—and his stance toward noir crime fiction.]

The day his brain stopped, James Ellroy was on a roof. It was his friend Randy Rice’s roof, atop an apartment building at Pico and Robertson in West Los Angeles. This was in 1975—four years before he began writing the incendiary crime novels that have made him rich and may soon make him famous. He was just out of a thirty-day alcohol rehab at Long Beach General Hospital, shoplifting Oscar Mayer bologna for raw fuel. And he was trying to formulate a simple thought: I want to go across the street and buy a pack of cigarettes.

But he kept missing the synapses. He couldn’t think of the next thought, and after an hour or so, he did a dark, primal, noir thing—he screamed. And screamed. Rice heard him and called an ambulance, and Ellroy soon found himself in restraints downtown at the county hospital. He was hearing voices (Ellroy, you killed your father!) and seeing fearsome, shapeless monsters.

Injected into oblivion, he woke up in a locked ward, his teeth loose, his knuckles bruised, his wrists rubbed raw from the leather restraints. The doctors told him he had a lung abscess and something called post-alcoholic brain syndrome. He’d known he was an alcoholic and a drug addict, but he’d thought he could control it. He was wrong.

Three days later, Ellroy, twenty-seven, checked himself out against the doctors’ advice and had a partial seizure on the hospital steps. He lifted a fifth of gin from a liquor store and guzzled it but still wasn’t drunk. Lifted another fifth, took a couple of shots, and passed out cold. Randy Rice told him later that he twitched and writhed for twelve hours straight.

“I realized,” says Ellroy, now forty-four, peering over a tall iced espresso, “if you keep this up, you’re going to die.”

There was always a part of Ellroy that wanted to live—to write great books, sleep with beautiful women, leave the squalid past behind him, and grow up. First stop was the Mira Loma Hospital in the California high desert. But he got kicked out for disrupting group therapy with his endless tales of sexual experiences he’d never had. Back in Los Angeles, terrified of drinking, he landed a job caddying at the Hillcrest Country Club. That’s when he began his second life.

As Ellroy tells it, his first one—encompassing most of his twenties—was a lurid litany of sneak thievery, guzzling Romilar CF and sweet Thunderbird wine, choking down the cotton wads from the bottom of Benzedrex nasal inhalers, breaking and entering, pornography, reading, and fantasy. All this unsupervised mayhem followed the grisly murder of his mother when he was ten and the monumental indifference of a loving but feckless father, who died...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100123225