October 12th, 2009 5:33 pm | by MATTHEW KORFHAGE News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Live from Wordstock: James Ellroy


2 pm Saturday, Oct. 10 at the Oregon Convention Center:

Wordstock this year has been a somewhat smaller affair (in a recession, everything recedes), taking up one rather than two of the Convention Center's cavernous event halls. I had arrived early enough on Saturday to catch the charismatic Barry Sanders read a bit of a polemic against the military-industrial complex, had watched kids' author Scott Westerfeld show off a slideshow of dazzling steampunk illustrations he'd been provided for his new book Leviathan (in his manner he was like a man who'd just bought a sports car—he didn't know how it worked, but he knew it made him sexy). I had accidentally stepped on author/expert forager Langdon Cook's toes as he checked on the status of his own books in the for-sale section, and lamented to Greg Netzer, the Wordstock organizer, that the proposed Donald Barthelme symposium had been canceled for lack of public interest (and, shame, shame on all of you). But even though the action started at 11 am, Wordstock attendance seemed a little sparse until about 2 pm—it's a weekend, after all—when James "L.A. Confidential" Ellroy took the stage.

Throw out whatever you think about literary readings being staid or boring or in any way respectful. Ellroy put on one of the odder and more compelling—if not always likeable—performances I'd seen at any literary event in quite a while.

Ellroy, as a physical presence, looked a bit like Bryan Cranston's character in AMC's Breaking Bad after maybe 10 more years of cancer—although he moved spryly and bragged he was planning on outliving Bill Clinton. When he took the stage he listed every prize he's ever won, every good review he'd ever gotten, cited his previous Novel of the Year award from TIME. He recited poetry by A.E. Housman to explain his own work. He claimed the Knopf Borzoi had physically manifested itself to him as a child and told him that he would be one of his generation's greatest writers, that he would write a series of not-so-good books, good books, damn good books, and masterpieces. "Get off my crib," he told the mystical dog, "I got livin' to do."

Then he called us all a bunch of pederasts, cocksuckers, cuntlickers, and everything else. The speech up to this point was rehearsed, of course, but still only faintly ironized. The ego and the malignant narcissism were stunningly real—the performance was rather in the method of delivery.

This hyperbolic, attention-diverting style extended even into the reading. When he read from his new book, he did so in the shouted, elongated oratory of a soapbox demagogue or streetside preacher—or maybe a town-hall heckler—veins pushing out of the near translucent skin of his neck.

He was, in short, a showman, and while I have a difficult time relating such an emphatic performance style to the actual experience of reading a book, which has its own rhythms, such a disconnect is perhaps much of the point: Ellroy offered a part-improvised, part-scripted theater of self, a vocal and even physical japing one hardly ever sees outside of plays for children. So while the ejaculatory delivery may have distracted from the prose, I saw something violent and human that the prose never could have offered.

The first question from the audience was almost a parody of a Portland question.

"I was disappointed to learn recently that you are right-leaning in your politics," said the questioner. "How do you feel about the fact that a lot of left-leaning people like your work?"

Ellroy was visibly inflamed and shouted him down. 'Take your insult," he said, "and shove it up your ass."

During the Q&A he welcomed our "invasive" questions but seemed also to reserve his right to harangue and intimidate from the podium—though he handled very well and quite gently the woman who claimed that she was a psychic and that the Black Dahlia hated Ellroy's guts ("She shouldn't," he said)—and also spoke quite gently, if still laced with his trademark profanity, about anyone associated with his romantic past. In everything related to his personal life, he was more likely to emote not raging sarcastic bravado but rather a humility tinged with regret.

If not a writer he might have been a conman, maybe a Hollywood producer, maybe the town drunk, but you got the feeling that a showman's rant would have always been his essence, that he had always been bred in talk and addicted to the power of keeping your attention for just one more moment. Well: He is widely considered one of the most important, if not the most important, crime novelists still alive and writing, so he will—at least for the foreseeable future—always have his podium and his audience.

Read WW's pre-Wordstock Q&A with the man himself, here.
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