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James Ellroy

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Is James Ellroy the greatest white-knuckle-drunk writer since Eugene O'Neill? Is he a frightful braggart and a publicity whore of the first order? Didn't he revamp detective novels from tough guy whodunits into sprawling postwar dramas with real psychological immediacy? Do I dig him, and does he worry me? Yes to all the above. Ellroy's sleazy and sad life story as a dope fiend and pervert is familiar to anyone who read his riveting 1996 memoir, My Dark Places, but he includes a couple of autobiographical essays in his latest collection, Destination: Morgue!, as nasty reminders, and their titles--"My Life as a Creep" and "Where I Get My Weird Shit"--pretty much tell it all. He throws in some true-crime reportage (including a take on the Robert Blake case), a piece on boxing, and a three-part novella set in contemporary LA, but Ellroy's obsessions with sex, violence, and more sex start to choke him here, and the book becomes one story--his--told over and over. The rapidly delivered vintage idiom he used to spectacular effect in White Jazz (1992) seems musty and rather desperate when used to describe today's world of hip-hop, Fox News, and Starbucks. But Destination: Morgue! probably wasn't meant to be more than a sop to fans waiting for the next installment of his "Underworld U.S.A." series (American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand are out so far), and this is still a novelist who on Late Night With Conan O'Brien shocked hard-bitten pros into nervous giggles--his reading should be a blast. Tue 10/12, 7:30 PM, Barbara's Bookstore, 1218 S. Halsted, 312-413-2665.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marion Ettlinger.

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