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I am not a reader of pulp fiction, for the simple reason that life is too short. When I was younger, I tried some and tired of it instantly, going through a series of lavishly praised popular novels that proved to be of dubious quality. I don’t mind pulp, but I’d rather get it by swilling bourbon at 3 in the morning at a truck stop or poking about a bad bar on a bad day, if it comes to that.

Aficionados sometimes resort to extolling the beachy value of the genre, but I like to think that anyone who requires pulp on the beach deserves it. Perhaps that’s mean-spirited, but even if popular novels have their place in the sun, that’s a long way from suggesting that they shine. The truth is, pulp flops miserably whenever it attempts to express complex truths or emotions in a satisfying manner, but of late this perfectly obvious assessment has received an awful drubbing. We are told by certain academics and seers that the distinction between literature and less-than-literature is bogus, that we may as well feast on Dick Tracy as Moby Dick. Anyone without water on the brain should recognize how fishy these declarations are, but many commentators swim for the deep waters and find they are in over their heads. Instead of calling for a lifeboat, they flounder about and pretend that drowning is the same thing as exploring the depths.

The problem with pulp has never been more clear to me than when I recently read a remarkable popular book that proved to be an edgy, exciting, courageous, heartbreaking failure—James Ellroy’s autobiographical My Dark Places, which chronicles the author’s coming of age, an event marked by the murder of his mother, and Ellroy’s attempt, 35 years later, to solve the case.

My Dark Places is difficult to put down, primarily because it strives for blunt honesty in its depiction of wrenching mental anguish and the seedy environs and events around which such anguish prospers. Ellroy doesn’t flinch from uncomfortable emotions, such as his being initially unmoved by his mother’s death and even somewhat pleased to learn that he would be able to live with his father in Hollywood as opposed to unseemly El Monte, Calif., where he had been living with his mother. Ellroy’s mother and father had divorced years earlier, whereupon his father had instigated a campaign to discredit Ellroy’s mother, telling the boy, among other things, that his mother was a promiscuous drunk and that if he would spy around the house and learn a thing or two it might eventually lead to some judge ruling that his mother was unfit to keep him. Ellroy tells us he once or twice caught his mother in bed with boyfriends—and that he was awfully easy prey for his father’s efforts.

Then she was gone. Snatched away as a result of a lurid sex crime, she was discovered by some neighborhood boys with her dress hiked up her thighs and a stocking round her neck. Her departure occurred long before Ellroy could hope to get his take on his mother straightened out, years before he would be able to understand that though he had caught his mother in flagrante and discovered her passion for Early Times, she had still loved and treasured him and in greatly compromised circumstances had attempted to raise him to be a person of integrity and character.

After his father’s death some years later, Ellroy went on a decadelong bender. He lived on the streets and dosed up on titanic amounts of Benzadrex, a decongestant inhaler that when consumed all at once provides a ripping high and, according to Ellroy, the stamina required for eight-hour-long sessions of self-abuse.

Perhaps that particular feat is difficult to grasp (not to put too fine a point on it), but the fantasies that crackled inside Ellroy’s warped brain are sadly convincing. His most intense sexual images revolved around women who looked like his mother, something that might shock puritanical sensibilities but presumably not the sensibilities of anyone unfortunate enough to have, in his formative years, come to know that his mother had been found in an abandoned parking lot, tossed out like so much trash after a sexual encounter that might have been a rape but then again might not have.

As a teenager, Ellroy read hundreds of crime novels pilfered from libraries and bookstores. Holed up in abandoned houses all over Los Angeles, he read, drank, and drugged himself blind, always dreaming of his mother. “I socked in a case of vodka, a load of steaks and a load of inhalers. I gorged myself on fantasy, fantasy sex, cholesterol, and the work of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and some junk crime writers. I stayed inside for days running,” he explains.

This much is beyond question: Ellroy is a gifted and gutsy writer. One of the most striking aspects of My Dark Places is its off-the-cuff, down-and-dirty nobility. The language is rough, but the heart of the book is tender and, in terms of the psychological risks Ellroy takes as he searches out his mother and her killer, brave. The reader comes across plenty of sentences such as these: “The couch was good for sustained jackoff action.” “Hollywood was a pus pocket.” “Westside AA swung hard. The demographic makeup was young, white and horny. Booze and dope were out. Sex was in. The Westside mandate was Stay sober, Trust God and fuck.”

Yet the reader also comes across a touching description of Ellroy recovering from delirium tremens—”I started crying. I prayed and begged God to let me keep my mind”—and moving passages about his mother:

“A cheap Saturday night took you down. You died stupidly and harshly and without the means to hold your own life dear…

Your death defines my life. I want to find the love we never had and explicate it in your name.

I want to take your secrets public. I want to burn down the distance between us.

I want to give you breath.”

But for all Ellroy’s courage and ability, My Dark Places fails at its most critical juncture. And what is interesting is that the failure is not due to a lack of talent on Ellroy’s part. The book fails because it remains steadfastly true to the dictates of popular fiction, a genre that cannot muster the resources to deal with difficult emotional issues, that stares at life in all its brutality, lust, love, and glory, and turns away to draw cartoon figures on bathroom walls. Popular fiction, whether well done or otherwise, is ultimately concerned with plot, readership, politics, entertainment value, an editor—anything but a calling or a vision. Given a dark place, pulp produces advertising slogans in neon tubing.

So we have Ellroy, with heart aplenty, describing a return to the scene of his mother’s murder: “I wanted to put myself at physical risk in her name. I wanted to feel her fear in this place. My fear always peaked and diminished. I never quite scared myself all the way back to that night.” And we realize that neither is the reader scared back to that night, because Ellroy continually blasts away with catch phrases and pop psychology.

Here is Ellroy in pursuit of his mother’s essence: “I said I was trying to contain her presence. I was running a dialogue on her. It was mostly internal. My external mode was all critique and mock-objective appraisal. She took full flight inside me. She vexed me and vamped me.” That is not terrible writing—it has energy and a strong voice—but the problem is it tells us little about his mother’s essence or what her essence means to Ellroy. Murdered and dearly loved mother takes flight inside her son, vexes and vamps him—a neat description to satisfy a timid heart. For all of Ellroy’s profanity and detailed descriptions of debauchery and ugliness, My Dark Places is simply too tidy.

At one point, Ellroy relates his wife’s take on his impatience: “She knew why I despised everything that might restrict my forward momentum. She knew that bullets have no conscience. They speed past things and miss their marks as often as they hit them.” I do not know whether that is an accurate description of Ellroy’s personality, but it is a very fine portrait of popular fiction in all its glittering, titillating weakness. And it also serves as a good explanation of what is wrong with My Dark Places. It allows nothing to restrict its forward momentum, it speeds past and misses its mark as often as it hits it.

My Dark Places reads like a descent into hell at twice the speed of sound. We see and hear very little but are somehow singed and aware of the dangerous territory we’ve just traversed. Still, I recommend it. Though retarded by the constraints of an inferior genre, it strives for insight. Ellroy really does go searching for his murdered mother and her killer, and that is quite a lot to read about. He talks convincingly of a world made vicious by men intent on harming women, of tough and smart cops who fall in love with serial-killer victims. Social pieties are shelved; the hard-boiled is celebrated.

At a time when sentimental trash gushes from hacks such as Robert James Waller and sells by the millions, and when children and other citizens are told that they should read more as long as what they read articulates a sound moral perspective and doesn’t contain nasty words or situations, My Dark Places is admirable indeed. In spite of its pulpishness, it presents a man who has faced terrible ordeals and overcome them. James Ellroy may be a popular writer, but he is not, I suspect, a man who is otherwise overly concerned with what people think, and that much comes through nicely. He has endured. He is to be congratulated. CP