Arts Desk

James Ellroy: Brilliant Author. Snappy Talker. Unchallenged Racist?

People are going batshit over Blood's a Rover, the new crime novel by Los Angeles writer James Ellroy, about the assassinations of MLK, RFK, and JFK. Just about everyone has something to say about it: The LA Times. The Boston Herald. The Washington Post. The Economist.

The Minnesota Star-Tribune profiled Ellroy in all his glory. NPR hosted him just yesterday.

Not one of those pieces, however, mentions Ellroy's personal view on race, which is an integral element of his newest book.

I finished Blood's a Rover on Sunday, and spent my spare hours on Monday searching for clips of Ellroy speaking about his work. (Honestly, he's that fascinating.) After watching a sum total of 1.5 hours of video, I got the uneasy feeling that because right-wingery is an established part of his shtick, critics don't feel the need to broach the subject in interviews or reviews.

Ellroy has professed a love of racist language (which he mentions briefly during the Q&A at the end of this lecture at Zocalo), and in the below video of a pre-election lunch with Rose McGowan and Bruce Wagner, the crime novelist says that Obama "looks like a lemur."

That says to me, at least that Ellroy's actual views on race deserve as much attention as his fictional depictions of race.

You need to a flashplayer enabled browser to view this YouTube video

If you know of stories or videos wherein Ellroy talks about race, feel free to post them in the comments.

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  • CK

    Found an interview from a while back (looks like '97?), wherein Ellroy seems to play with the ambiguity of it.

    "I would like to provoke ambiguous responses in my readers. That's what I want. There's part of me that would really like to be one of Dudley Smith's goons and go back and beat up some jazz musicians, and there's part of me that's just appalled."

    "Their racism and homophobia is appalling, but it's germane to their characters, and people will either get that or not get it. That's that. You can't really respond to the press and say, "I'm not a racist or a homophobe." Nobody's going to believe you."

  • G

    So, you call Ellroy a "racist?" in your headline, then offer zero evidence that he is a racist.

    Let me explain something to you. Ellroy writes FICTION. Some of his FICTIONAL CHARACTERS, such as the corrupt police officers who feature so prominently in his work, use racist language. Does that make the fiction writer James Ellroy a racist? No, and you can't find any evidence that he is one.

    As you are apparently admitting, you couldn't find a single racist statement by Ellroy - and no, "Obama looks like a lemur" doesn't count. So you ask your readers to help you dig up the nonexistent dirt? Ridiculous.

  • Mike Riggs

    Hi, G, thanks for commenting.

    I understand how fiction works. Do you get that there are racial undertones to comparing a black man to a monkey? That's the question I was asking of Ellroy.

    I know Ellroy says a lot of things for the sake of spectacle--i.e., the frequent Mason Family jokes--but that doesn't mean my question is without merit.

    Futhermore, I wasn't asking for dirt. I was asking if he'd ever spoke about his attitudes towards race in past interviews. Big difference, G.

  • D.T. Shindler

    Hi Mike, I agree that there can be racial undertones to comparing someone who is black to a simian or primate -- that usually rings true when they call them a monkey, gorillla, etc. (there ARE cases when such isn't true: I know a white woman who referred to her baby girl as a monkeygirly, or monkey -- when she saw a cute baby girl, a black girl, at a supermarket, and called her a cute little monkey, she was, of course, pilloried for it -- and only understood what happened after it was later explained).

    More to the point: in the _video_, Ellroy says that _Wagner_ compared Obama to a Lemur. Wagner. NOT Ellroy! So G is correct in stating you've written an article about racism where _no_ empircal proof is shown.
    Which -- in point of fact -- might be tantamount to libel (circle your wagons). As for Ellroy: I met him a couple of times while he was living in KC, when I interviewed him for "Book". He was nice guy: low key, even when doing the hyperbolic schtick. Didn't hang around him enough to deduce whether he has any low-level racist feelings or beliefs -- you know, polite racism, where certain people are avoided, etc (as many folks do) -- but I didn't get the skin-head vibe from him that a few people (including one former newspaper editor, because of his haircut and moustache) often thought he had. I'm in league with G: Ellroy _is_ a rightwing conservative. but he also writes fiction. His characters are racist. Doesn't necessarily mean HE is. Your article is pure speculation -- of the _worst_ sort, since you have _openly (watch the video and PAY attention) relied on misconstrued "evidence.

  • D.T. Shindler

    P.S. Sorry for all the typos -- in a hurry!
    To make the point more straightforward: Lemurs are animals that (with their big eyes) LOOK like they want/need love from everyone. Hence Ellroy's reference to _Wagner's_ remark about Obama resembling a lemur.
    If I were in _your_ place, I'd admit to a misunderstanding of the video I'd used as "evidence" and move on. But then, I'm a common sense kinda guy.

  • David S

    Hey Mike:

    Came across your post.

    I think questions about Ellroy's personal views on race are valid. I used to wonder about them, given his celebration of right-wing kooks in his books. (I'm Jewish, and we don't come off so hot in his novels, either).

    I saw Ellroy talk when The Cold Six Thousand came out. He was unbridled in his praise of Martin Luther King. (I know, doesn't mean much. But he came across as totally sincere), and talked about how he voted for Bill Clinton but grew to hate him because of Lewinski. He also had rough words for Ali, who boxed in Africa under the twisted Mobutu dictatorship.

    For awhile Ellroy was a big fan of O'Reilly, and he has consistently defended the L.A. P.D., including the Rodney King incident(he said if you saw the whole video, you'd know the full story).

    But on the other hand, he wrote a devastating piece of investigative journalism for GQ a few years ago on the Texas death penalty (you should find it. Very powerful). It involved a black man convicted of murder on a single ID witness. It lead Ellroy to completely change his pro death penalty view (a direct result of his mother's murder) to anti-death penalty, as he showed how the system is rigged against poor blacks in particular.

    So, he's probably not the liberal you'd hope him to be, nor is he the racist you'd suspect because of his characters.

    I've concluded that in the end, he's an entertainer and a heck of a fun writer who's made a lot of money pushing boundries and delivering good stories. Like the Christopher Hitchens of crime fiction.

  • Tim

    I'm a fan of Ellroy. I'm reading Blood's a Rover now. I'm a lefty, if that matters here. I really enjoy his writing, the intricate plots especially.
    The reason I decided to google Ellroy and race is because of the narration.

    Of course creating a racist character does not make him a racist. Is Steven King a murderer? But, it's not just the language that his characters use. His narrator also uses "coontown," "spooks," the big N-word and more. Somehow this seems different.

    In my mind he gets away with it... somehow. I don't know how. Maybe it's because most (or all?) of his characters, left or right, are deeply flawed. No one comes out looking good.

    I don't think the author of this post condemned Ellroy as a racist. There is a question mark after "racist" in the headline, after all. It's a valid question.

  • David S

    Well, in the Rolling Stone interview now available online, Ellroy came out as a huge supporter of Barack Obama. So, that pretty much kills the racist or not debate.

  • D.T. Shindler

    TOM: Read the posts above yours: you'll see that I point out that Mike Riggs based his whole "article" on the video herein. A video in which _another_ guy makes the statement that might seem racial. That, in my opinion, is simply _bad_ journalism. And therefore his headline is not a valid question -- unless one believes in the Fox news school of journalism.

  • D.T. Shindler

    Damn! Typo above: make that, TIM (not Tom) (And the Fox News "school" of journalism is all about sensationalism -- and fear. In case anyone was wondering). -DTS

  • Anonymous

    I think it deserves to be noted that George W. Bush was not infrequently compared in appearance to apes, especially the chimpanzee.

  • Loonesta

    Ellroy's consistent and constant racial slurs are getting a bit too obsessive and questionable as to neutrality on the part of the author. These slurs are so pervasive, creative, and varied that I cannot help but get the impression he personally enjoys this language. Is Ellroy really some sickening white trash cracker asshole? This racism has stunk up most of his writing since the mid 1980's and grows as tiresome as Ellroy's unrestrained alliterative tendencies. Both are gimmicks, and they've become the albatross-Pet Rock and Mood Ring of Ellroyian style.

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  • reality99

    actually ellroy IS a flaming kook-racist. a good friend of mine dated him not too long ago (she met him while he did a guided tour of crime scenes in LOS ANGELES). she lived in paris and he came to visit her. everything was going great until, while taking a romantic stroll through the city, he asked her nonchalantly if she had ever been with a BLACK guy. she admitted that she had and he had what can best be described as a tantrum. he freaked OUT. the rest of his trip was a wash. he returned to the states and sent her faxes (written in long hand - he refused to use email at the time). he had her agree to a set of RIDICULOUS demands (one of them: i swear this is true - she was to NO LONGER WATCH BASKETBALL GAMES ON TV). they eventually split because he couldn't deal with it. KOO KOO.....

    if that isn't enough proof, how about the fact that Ellroy sent Nazi pamphlets to girls he liked and criticized JFK, while advocating the reinstatement of slavery. he was eventually expelled for preaching Nazism in his English class.

  • CDK

    Um, isn't it self-contradictory to condemn Ellroy's racism with the term "sickening white trash cracker asshole"?

  • Tall Texan

    I am sort of glad I found this site. I recently began reading some of Mr. Ellroy's work and I couldn't help but thinking he was taking the racist names and references a bit far. I honestly tried to consider the racial slurs as a part of characters behavior but it become to hard. Especially after I started on the second book.

    And for the record.. I have always thought that there was something questionable about Stephen King.

  • Angelika

    Lol racist or not, this guy seems like a huge pervert, he is probably still stealing panties and peeping through windows...

  • sc

    After 7 or eight books including the masterpiece, LA quartet
    one of the clear impressions I got was the author of the book was extremely racist. He really hated black people. It just pours out of his writing. Nevertheless the writer is so talented the books are still well worth experiencing. To me denying his racism would be like denying the violence, its just there. To me, its important to warn other black people before reading these books because it literally like getting a sucker punch at times reading this kind of work.