James Ellroy, “Widespread Panic” (2021) – James Ellroy returns to his bread and butter in this story of blackmail and obsession in fifties LA. You can argue he’s never left his bread and butter, but his most recent series, which he interrupted with this book, is a little off the beaten path. “Perfidia” and “This Storm” take place during WWII, involve more geopolitical intrigue, an effort at a sort of Balzacian encapsulation of the whole time and place of wartime Southern California, and also get into the strange and unlikely master plots that animated arguably his single greatest novel, “Blood’s A Rover” (don’t go off and read BAR if you want to start reading Ellroy, read the beginning of its series, “American Tabloid,” first)… but can’t quite nail it like that book could.
I’m still along for the ride wherever Ellroy, to my mind the great living American crime writer, wants to go… but it was nice to reunite with the more mundane LA scumminess that’s his old go-to. Our narrator this time is Freddy Otash, a (version of) a real life Hollywood private dick, supposedly one of the bases for Jack Nicholson’s character in “Chinatown.” As in real life, Otash in “Widespread Panic” is an ex-LAPD cop who works for “Confidential” magazine in the 1950s. “Confidential” turned the scandal rag into an art form and an ideological statement, and is among the main influences on Ellroy’s famous telegraphic/bebop-inflected writing style. Otash has the run of fifties Hollywood, gathering gossip on the stars for “Confidential,” arranging blackmail and shakedowns using the information he finds, threatening or just mauling anyone who threatens the business, etc.
If you’re looking for tightly-plotted detective work ala Ray Chandler or whoever, you won’t find it here. The plots here are mostly forgettable. Otash gets tangled up with figures ranging from JFK to James Dean. Importantly to Ellroy’s whole thing, he also gets tangled up with a variety of women- a floozie actress who leaves him for one of the bad guys, a giant college basketball player who flirts with him but refuses to have sex with him, an ex-communist with a deadly grudge, and one of Ellroy’s classic good hardass Midwestern women who have to make it in this awful town types.
The women are important thusly: in Ellroyland, like I discussed in my Jacobin piece on him long ago, romantic love for women constitutes the highest good a man can reach for, and what distinguishes good men from bad. Otash feels himself superior to the main villains in this novel, the minor actor Steve Cochran and Nick Ray, the guy who directed “Rebel Without A Cause,” despite the fact that, from most readers’ perspective, they’re a lot alike. They’re depicted as violent men who are obsessed with control and with voyeurism. They obsess over women and pursue them both openly and on the sly- they are stalkers. Otash is friends with James Dean for much of the book, but loses him to Nick Ray’s evil cadre surrounding the “Rebel Without A Cause” production. Ellroy puts a lot of weight on a scene where Otash finds the “Rebel” crew — Dean, Ray, Sal Mineo, etc. — do a frat-style “raid” on a sorority house. It’s a little more violent than what Animal House would get up to, but mostly involves yelling at women and stealing their underwear. Bad behavior, no doubt, Otash is right to be disgusted… but he does the same shit! He routinely breaks in places and does weird voyeuristic shit! All Ellroy protagonists do, and Ellroy used to himself! He’s a weird dude!
How, then, does Ellroy cop a judgmental attitude towards his villains? It comes down to a few differences that would register to most of the people reading this as aesthetic more than anything, but which for Ellroy make up the heart of his romantic-noir ethics. It’s in the way you go about things, and what backstops what you do. If you love the right kind of woman — a hard, difficult, protagonistic woman who is just off on her own weird trajectory — then you are among the blessed. Steve Cochran and Nick Ray just run around fucking whatever, which Ellroy protagonists also do, but you know, they either stop when they meet The One (or A One, anyway) or view all future assignations through the lens of one of the Divine Women.
I found myself wondering what the relationship between Ellroy’s protagonist-thugs, the divine (whether expressed as a woman or more conventionally), and rebellion as I read this curious book. Like “Confidential,” Ellroy does not love or necessarily even respect duly appointed authority, but he tends to despise those who rebel against it. Ellroy protagonists, Otash included, routinely rip off their (invariably crooked and thuggish) bosses in police departments or wherever else… but they don’t make a principle out of it. Rebellion as a principle is verboten in Ellroy. Much of the early part of “Widespread Panic” concerns Hollywood communists. They’ve already been raked over the coals by HUAC, and can’t really do much, but Otash and Ellroy still give them some juice. The runaround he gets into with them, politics aside, is a little… it’s fine, but not as good as the other parts.
Considerably more compelling in this vein of rebellion is Otash’s disgust for the (somewhat anachronistically early- the main action of the book ends in 1956) emerging counterculture. He doesn’t hate gay men, like his erstwhile pal James Dean, or drug abusers (Otash pops benzies like they’re going out of style). But he does hate people who go around acting like they can upset the applecart, morally or culturally speaking. Part of that might be good business- a blackmailer has much less to do in a morally permissive society. But beyond that, it seems to me that maybe Ellroy thinks copping an attitude of rebellion — whether it’s riding motorcycles too fast and making “blue movies” or following the Moscow line — means abandoning the straight and narrow, not defined by staying away from booze, drugs, sex, violence, and betrayal — that’s boring — but defined by certain patterns of devotion, like those Ellroy’s protagonists have for the divine women.
Satan was the first rebel, after all, and whatever else you want to say about the politics of Ellroy’s takes, there’s few better at getting across the airheaded but vicariously vicious posturing of rich, decadent types who think they’re above morality or respect, let alone devotion. This comes out in Ellroy’s treatment of the case of Caryl Chessman, a convicted (and confessed) rapist who became a Hollywood cause celebre. I’m also opposed to the death penalty, but Ellroy made opposition to gassing (they used gas in California back then, creepily enough) the guy seem like pure envy- they love Chessman, these Hollywood liberals, Nick Ray included, because they want to be bad like him, because they lack the sort of moral rectitude that differentiates an Ellroy protagonist… even when said protagonist is also a murderer and a creep. That Otash tells this all from Purgatory, where telling his stories brings him closer to salvation… well, it’s a weird and thought-provoking book, and I’d say upper-mid-tier Ellroy, which at this point means top-tier of contemporary fiction. ****’