James ellroy is barking. he is sitting in an upscale restaurant in midtown Manhattan, lampooning John F. Kennedy for his "two minute" sex romps and bragging about his own bullterrier's sex drive when a woman at a neighboring table looks over disapprovingly. So he barks at her. And at the waiter, and at the coat-check girl. Laughing, he barks all the way out onto the street.
Ellroy likes to shock. While shooting down a triple espresso-"I need the kick start"-and looking for all the world like James Joyce buffed up on steroids, Ellroy rips into American culture like a chainsaw in an abattoir with the volume turned up. Kennedy? "Jack got what he deserved. He got whacked before the sex got stale and everyone saw him for what he was." Clinton? "I hate him with a biblical passion. He is monstrous and shallow, a cold, manipulative man with a warm front, infantile with women I would never have done Monica." American innocence? "This preposterous notion that Americans are innocent when this country is based on land grabs, slavery and slaughter of indigenous people. Are you insane?"
He doesn't do innocence. But he does bad guys really well. Having made his name as the latter-day master of noir with books on L.A. cops, murderers and assorted lowlifes-L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia-Ellroy began searching for larger game to hunt. He found it in the turmoil of the 1960s, with the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. and the drama of the civil rights struggle. "I lived through the '60s, with these great events roiling around me. I never partook, but I always felt there were private stories underneath the public events." In 1995 he published American Tabloid, his inimitable take on what led up to the shooting of John F. Kennedy in Dallas. Its sequel, The Cold Six Thousand, takes the sordid tale of gangsters, pols, G-men, Cuban racketeers and hired killers up to Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968 "and down to new depths."
And he found a new béte noire: J. Edgar Hoover, the shadowy fbi director with a basketful of hatreds. "It was the horror of the abuse of power by Hoover and the fact that he went after Martin Luther King-and that King was the one guy he couldn't break-that's what interested me," says Ellroy, who argues that underneath it all, both American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand are "deeply moral books. If you show there was a nexus of racism in America which led to the death of arguably the greatest American of the 20th century, Martin Luther King, you are expositing racism on the page. And literature is the explanation of reality through incident."
The defining incident in Ellroy's life was the murder of his mother when he was 10 years old, an event that has appeared in several of his books. In 1996 Ellroy took time off from his fiction to write My Dark Places, a factual account of his attempt to find his mother's killer 38 years after the fact. He hired a detective and reinvestigated thousands of old leads. They did not find the killer, but Ellroy is not disappointed. "I suspect part of the whole dynamic of Jean Hilliker Ellroy and me is that I'm not going to know and I'm not meant to know Closure is bulls___-it's not worth anything." Far from burying the demons that had haunted him since childhood, the exercise brought him to "a level of maturity and of erotic intensity that I think The Cold Six Thousand shows. I couldn't have got there if I hadn't gone snout to snout with my mother's death."
He is already planning his next novel, which will continue the politics-as-crime theme through Nixon and the Vietnam War and up to Watergate. He hopes to have it finished in 21½ years, completing what he calls "the Underworld U.S.A." trilogy. He also has a book in mind about Warren Harding's presidency and "the rumors that some of his family was black."
Ellroy lives a quiet life in Kansas City with his wife Helen Knode, "whom I love more than my life and would happily die for," and his bullterrier Dudley. After years in a drug and alcohol haze, he says he takes care of his health, eating well and working out regularly. At 53, he is still "10 years from the top of my game." He travels tirelessly around the world to promote his books as they come out, then returns to his six-bedroom house in Kansas City-to think. "I've got a den there where I can call epiphanies on."
Epiphanies come in assorted shades of darkness for Ellroy. His critics call him a crazed voice of violent depravity. But Ellroy, like his bullterrier alter ego, cares little for the analysis. Ellroy just barks.