James Ellroy's American Apocalypse

The master of modern noir has completed an epic secret history of America — a trilogy so dark that he lost his mind writing it

James Ellroy calls himself the "Demon Dog" of American fiction. And he nearly lost his mind finishing his masterwork, a secret history of the 1960s. Credit: Ulf Andersen / PxP Gallery

On a recent New York morning, James Ellroy, the self-proclaimed "Demon Dog" of American fiction, is in a good mood. "I feel like the weight of a lifetime has been lifted off me," he says, sitting in a hotel room. "I'm 61, and I feel like a kid. All I've wanted, ever, was to write great fucking novels, have a couple of dogs and fuck women. What else is there? I mean, a good hamburger's OK, but…."

Ellroy is a master of shtick. Over the course of a few minutes he can veer from over-the-top braggadocio ("I'm the Beethoven of crime fiction") to hipster jive ("can't make the scene without caffeine") to unapologetic perversion ("I'm a sex fiend!") to biblical righteousness ("I'm a Scottish minister's son, and I believe in privation and a personal responsibility to God"). Best known for his modern noir classic L.A. Confidential, Ellroy has just released Blood's a Rover, the last novel in his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy. The book completes his bleak and disturbing vision of the metastasized cancers at the heart of the midcentury American empire – from the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam to J. Edgar Hoover and Howard Hughes – as seen through the interconnected schemes and criminal enterprises of rogue FBI agents, homicidal cops, mobsters and contract killers.

Ellroy's obsession with the dark side of America can be traced to the well-documented traumas of his early years: his mother's unsolved murder, his ne'er-do-well father who died not long after. A teenage voyeur who broke into women's homes to steal their lingerie, Ellroy washed out of the Army and spent the next decade addicted to speed and booze, jailed for petty thefts and often homeless, living on the streets of L.A. After sobering up in 1977, he began earning a living as a golf caddie, got some books published, then emerged out of nowhere as the bestselling author of The Black Dahlia and The Big Nowhere, with a distinctive and brutal style that one critic described as "so hard-boiled it burns the pot."

But as his fame grew, Ellroy's personal life grew darker. Two marriages crumbled, and he threw himself deeper into his work – and wound up suffering a mental breakdown in 2001, during the book tour for The Cold Six Thousand. "Flew too high, worked too hard," he says. "Crazy suppressed shit came out and just blew up in my face." Now, eight years later, he's finishing up a memoir called The Hilliker Curse and enjoying the release of Blood's a Rover, a giant historical noir that provides a romantic coda to his Underworld U.S.A. series. The protagonists, whom Ellroy calls "right-wing leg-breakers," pursue redemption in the form of a left-wing agitator named Joan, making it like so many of his novels: three men obsessed with a single woman over the course of a great big bloody book.

Your Underworld U.S.A. trilogy covers 1958 to 1972, the years when you were most marginalized – homeless, addicted. Is that one of the reasons you wanted to write about that period?
The trilogy derives entirely from my reading of Don DeLillo's novel Libra in 1988. It's told largely from the viewpoint of Lee Harvey Oswald, and DeLillo makes him the single greatest, most fully realized loner in American history. It was also the first time I had seen, in literature, an unintelligent and malleable dipshit portrayed with such empathy and complexity. I realized, "Holy shit – this fucking book is so fucking good that now I can't write about the Kennedy assassination." But then I began to see that I could write a trilogy that would chart all the harbingers of JFK's assassination and create a complete human infrastructure of big public events. After the L.A. Quartet, I didn't want to write anything that could be categorized as a crime novel. I wanted to explore a theme that I call the "private nightmare of public policy."

What's the private nightmare?
The outline of American history from 1958 to '63 is iconic and well-known: the emergence of the civil rights movement, the ascent of JFK, J. Edgar Hoover's repressive shit, the Mob, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then the decade of revolution in the youth culture, the continuing nightmare in Vietnam, more bombs, more crazy CIA shit, political assassinations. We know that. That's the public policy. But who's out there taking names, doing the wiretapping, breaking legs, shaking people down, making a buck out of it – and suffering the convoluted morality of it? Who's coming to the point where they can't do it anymore, and what makes them change? That's the private nightmare. That's Blood's a Rover.

This is a very dark trilogy. Did it fuck you up writing the books?
It fucked me up completely. I inhabited the souls of these leg-breakers. I stayed with them morally and spiritually. But Blood's a Rover is about the necessity of revolution and change. This book goes somewhere entirely different from the first two.

Deeper into the moral consequences of violence and corruption?
Right. Blood's a Rover is where the people who have been through the shit of 1958 to 1968 start talking about what it all means. I lived through that shit. I sensed it going on around me but (a) I was bombed until '77, and (b) I was an outlier in just a lot of ways. I was never a rock & roll guy; I was always a classical-music guy. I was never a peacemaker; I was a fuck-you right-winger. I've got a weird view of American history that I think is viable and allows me to spread empathy around fairly evenly.

Do you think it's naive to believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone?
It would be a triumph of spatial logic and empirical thinking over imagination to believe that something else wasn't going on. I look at the lone-gunman theory and think, "It doesn't make moral, historical or metaphysical sense to me, so I'm just going to reject it." And it's a better fucking story my way. So I won't argue about the lone gunman – I don't give a shit. So what? Fuck you. Who's your daddy? Who's got the better story to tell? Guess what, it's me.

One of your characters, a young right-winger named Don Crutchfield, is so willfully out of step with the times that he seems like a fictionalized version of you.
That's me – a big guy with a crew cut and straight-leg pants in the Summer of Love wondering why he can't get laid. "Well, maybe if you quit jacking off and listen to rock & roll instead of Beethoven, you might be a little more likely." In the book, Crutchfield doesn't know what to do for Christmas. He's never been laid, and he's 23, and he's lonely. He's a peeper, and he's got two options: go to midnight service in the Lutheran church, or go peep black women in South Central L.A. That's me in a nutshell.

Do you still have those right-wing tendencies?
Right-wing tendencies? I do that to fuck with people. I thought Bush was a slimebag and the most disastrous American president in recent times. I voted for Obama. He's a lot like Jack Kennedy – they both have big ears and infectious smiles. But Obama is a deeper guy. Kennedy was an appetite guy. He wanted pussy, hamburgers, booze. Jack did a lot of dope.

So why do you still seem to identify with the right-wing goons you create?
I'm a Christian, and my books are stories of redemption. I show you the karmic consequences of horrific deeds. More often than not, I want you to love my characters in the end because they have transcended. They have found something bigger, deeper, morally surer than themselves.

You once wrote that Dashiell Hammett perfectly captured the American notion that a job can destroy a person. Is that what happens to your characters?
The core of Hammett's art is the masculine figure in American society – he is a job holder. He goes at his job with a ruthless determination and has an unwillingness to look beyond it. That's who these guys of mine are. They are so fucking proficient, even as their lives are in precipitous decline. They're eaten up, but they're driven by their inbred American sense of responsibility. There's an undercurrent of tenderness that's driving them as they go about doing their jobs so very ruthlessly.

The way you portray J. Edgar Hoover's wiretapping is very present-day, especially given what happened under Bush.
I don't know what I pick out of the Zeitgeist. I'm not being disingenuous – I honestly don't know. Let me tell you about my life. I'm 61.I exercise a lot, I don't drink, I don't use drugs, I don't sleep very well. I'm very limited in my interests. I've got a big apartment, I've got a big sports car. I quit running around trying to get married. "Get married and impregnate women" hasn't played out for me. My life has become a matriarchy. I talk to Helen Knode, my ex-wife, my girlfriends and colleagues on the phone. I've never used a computer. I'm not shitting you – I'm cut off from the world.

Your life was such a disaster for so long. Did you ever think you wouldn't make it?
I was always looking to get off, and I had a very pronounced cold streak. But as fucked up as I was, I always had faith. And I loved to laugh. I could always go in a corner, scratch my balls, jack off, pull some dipshit stunt, like dining and dashing. I needed to make my way out in the world because my dad was completely fucked up. I never felt pissed off about it. I never felt like, "Ooh, I don't have a family." I always wanted a family.

That's surprising. Given your books, it's easy to believe that you see the world as an unrelentingly dark place.
No, no, I'm not a misanthrope. I'm optimistic. Heck, I think human beings can evolve over time. I like people – in a distanced way [laughs]. Individuals have prominence over their psyches and can liberate themselves from horrible states of being as the world goes to shit around them. And I've chosen to do that.

In your upcoming memoir, The Hilliker Curse, you express regret for the way you sold books by using your mother's murder.
I was young and callous. But now I realize my mother and I are not a murder story. We are a love story. And the central story I have to tell is women. I knew that if I consciously applied my talent and my brain power to the persona of my mother, it would lead me to be more receptive to women in general.

In the memoir you also write about your overpowering lust for women. But on another level, you're very puritanical.
I want women. But it's discerning, it's tender. I don't see sex as being inherently squalid – I see the marketing of sexuality and the vulgarization of sex as being depraved. They've denuded and made common something holy and sacred. We need to reinvest in sex, have less sex, wait till the eighth date before you fuck and suck.

In Blood's a Rover, you seem obsessed with Joan, the left-wing Jewish activist.
I wrote this book for a woman I was in love with named Joan. It was the first time I ever did that. I've started following women involuntarily who look like Joan. You just walk 10 yards, and it's not her.

But you keep following?
I eventually come to my senses. Definitely a fucking brain click.

Do you still peep women?
Yeah. Yeah, I do. I stay in on holidays. I live in a deco building on the edge of Hollywood. One holiday, I was peeping this big-ass redhead. She was flipping burgers, and her blouse would come up, and she would pull it down. She bent down way low, and I could see her bra strap. Then my buddy called and said, "What are you doing, Ellroy? Come on out here, we're cooking." I said, "I don't want any food; I'm peeping. Leave me the fuck alone."

Do you feel guilty about that?
No.

Why not? Do see voyeurism as a form of appreciation?
Yeah, you want to be saved. You're genetically wired to salvation, and women are our beacons in the night.

And that doesn't strike you as weird?
I am utterly cut out to be in dark rooms talking to women on the telephone and working. My buddy called recently and said, "Hey, we got an extra ticket for Fleetwood Mac." What the fuck? I'd rather watch flies fuck in Alabama. I live in a vacuum so that I might go back and live more assiduously in pockets of American history.

Is that the secret to your success?
There are greater writers out there, and more gifted writers. What I am is a thinking machine. I see myself as emblematic of extreme drive and ambition and focus. It's given me hyperacuity. I can write like a motherfucker, and man, do I rigorously think about shit and what it all means.

What led to your mental breakdown?
I went through a period of months and months where I was in love with a married woman who was never gonna leave her husband. I'd just be surrounded by that big fuckin' cosmic nothingness. You could say it's the issue of not being able to be with the woman you love. But more than anything else, it was just being alone in the cosmos and knowing that you're gonna die.

Did you see it coming?
It was the shit of a lifetime just oozing out of my palms. Physical stress, overwork, Assuring unconsciousness, boorishness, recklessness. Much too much mental energy expended for too many years. Raging panic attacks and horrible insomnia fits. I was just gone. I was way out of my emotions – shit roared through me at 1,000 rpms. I couldn't hold anything back. And I couldn't control anything through narrative. It was the worst time in my life.

You ended up in an institution, right?
Yeah, a bunch of them. Overnight at the nut ward in Monterey, overnight in the nut ward in Tucson. There was no rubber hose, but I was bombed, what can I tell ya? Before I knew it, I was back at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel jackin' off to pictures of Anne Sexton – in clothes! A dead poet! That's how fucked up I am! [Laughs]

Did you learn anything from losing your mind?
I learned a lot from the crackup. I want to write great books and be good to people, and to shamelessly promote myself. But nothing's worse than an ambitious person with no control. Someone who'll hustle anybody, shabbily. No one wants to have anything to do with people like that.

So it made you a better writer?
I wanna continue to write big-ass, shit-kicking, profound books. I'm arrogant, and I'm fearful. But I'm not as fearful as I used to be. The crackup took a lot of my fear away.