I started reading James Ellroy’s Destination: Morgue! (2004) this weekend, and I really can’t imagine a better author to lift your spirits when you are feeling down 🙂 I actually started this book of stories from the end, and then worked my way back to the beginning. Don’t ask me why, I just was taken with the title of the final story/novella “Jungletown Jihad,” which may be one of his most sinister pieces ever. It’s weird to read Ellroy’s fiction post-9/11, because he seems simultaneously hyper-relevant and out-dated. I’m so used to him chronicling the underworld of the 50s and 60s in masterpieces like the LA Quartet and The American Underworld Trilogy (the third novel, Blood’s a Rover, is due out in September—one of the few books I have ever looked forward to being published) that reading about Arab terrorist cells in LA in 2004 is surreal. His own explanation for writing The American Underworld trilogy is what originally lured me in to this series:
The essential contention of the Underworld USA trilogy … is that America was never innocent. Here’s the lineage: America was founded on a bedrock of racism, slaughter of the indigenous people, slavery, religious lunacy … and nations are never innocent. Let alone nations as powerful as our beloved fatherland. What you have in The Cold Six Thousand — which covers the years ’63 to ’68 — is that last gasp of pre-public-accountability America where the anti-communist mandate justified virtually any action. And it wasn’t Kennedy’s death that engendered mass skepticism. It was the protracted horror of the Vietnamese war.¹
Yet, what is so striking is that this idea of “innocence” in regards to America’s domestic and international policy has never seemed so distant and illusory as it has over the past eight years or so. Interestingly enough, “Jungle Jihad” draws some close parallels with the impunity of power in its unfettered violence that is the core of Ellroy’s frame for the 1950s and 60s, but somehow when this is updated for the ’00s, when there can be little pretense to innocence in a state ruled by fear of terrorism, it makes for a radically different reading experience. It’s a really strange to read “Jungletown Jihad” in light of Ellroy’s earlier stuff, and I don’t know what to make of it entirely. I mean he’s always good for the sick sexual hang-ups, hopped-up psycho energy, and the insane prejudices of the law—but somehow they seem more frightening to me without pretense of another world that is somehow outside that universe, somehow quieter or safer. In fact, that is the essence of the Noir, right? There’s an underworld that is all around us, yet invisible and somehow outside of our purview. It all takes place in the back alleys, dive bars and boarding houses, the suburbs are safe from this world—the two clearly and necessarily distinct. And while one can be sucked into this world, it remains more a matter of fate than accident. It’s odd to be how these distinctions are eroding, and everyone is a suspect, and no one is safe—is that the necessary fallout of a loss of innocence—even if always already a myth?
But actually I wasn’t intending to write about “Jungletown Jihad,” particularly because it seems like the most problematic and illicit literature written given it’s outright attack on the pretense to civil liberties and some kind of weak-ass liberal sentiment that seems compromised and silly given what we already know. Just reading it I was like, “He didn’t just have his character say that about Arabs, did he? Jesus! What a nut!” Ellroy’s a maniac, there’s no two ways about it—he isn’t called the “Demon Dog” without reason. But the story that really took me—and I think is the best of the bunch—is the very first one in the collection: “Balls to the Wall.” It’s actually a framing and re-telling of an actual boxing match back in 2000 between Érik Morales and Marco Antonio Barrera.
Now I know there is a rich journalistic/literary tradition surrounding boxing, and while I’m not a student of the genre, Joyce Carol Oates’s On Boxing (1987) is a masterpiece in this vein. Her ideas of boxing move from “a celebration of the lost religion of masculinity” to boxing as pornography (and the next quote is a must) is astoundingly rich and accurate:
The spectacle of human beings fighting each other for whatever reason, including, at certain well-publicized times, staggering sums of money, is enormously disturbing because it violates a taboo of our civilization. Many men and women, however they steel themselves, cannot watch a boxing match because they cannot allow themselves to see what it is they are seeing. One thinks helplessly, This can’t be happening, even as, and usually quite routinely, it is happening. In this way boxing as a public spectacle is akin to pornography: in each case the spectator is made a voyeur, distanced, yet presumably intimately involved, in an event that is not supposed to happening as it is happening. The pornographic “drama,” though as fraudulent as professional wrestling, makes a claim for being about something absolutely serious, if not humanly profound: it is not so much about itself as about the violation of a taboo. That the taboo is spiritual rather than physical, or sexual — that our most valuable human experience, love, is being is being desecrated, parodied, mocked — is surely at the core of our culture’s fascination with pornography.
I just love the idea of boxing as a form of spiritual pornography that frames a culture’s own fascination with the desecration of the values it holds up as most sacred. I think Oates really gets at the power and allure of mass culture over the past forty or fifty years, and no where is the spectacle more apparent than boxing in the 80s and 90s for a whole host of reasons—particularly this wider sense of its fraudulence, or it’s loss of innocence, particularly with the transparent antics of Don King and Mike Tyson. So, I found it interesting that in “Balls to the Wall” Ellroy should return boxing to a literary character that rivals even Papa. Although his debt to Hemingway is undeniable when describing this match between two elite Mexican fighters in 2000, there is much of the Spanish bullfighters from The Sun Also Rises as there is of the prose of Men Without Women. His description of his father’s complex promotion/demotion system for understanding boxers according to race and ethnicity, which is both prejudiced and fluid based upon his father’s particular feelings about a fighter’s talents.
He liked white fighters best. He liked Mexicans next. He liked Negroes last.
Heart eclipsed race. Heart mitigated race. Heart gave Mexicans White Man status.
Mexican meant all Latins. Mexican meant some Italians. Mexican meant the Cuban Negro Kid Gavilan.
I particularly like the way Ellroy describes Mexican boxing:
MEXICAN BOXING IS WORKMANLIKE. Mexican boxing is inspired.
It’s savage emphasis. It’s basic boxing retuned to short range.
You move in. You stalk. You cut the ring off. You intimidate with forward momentum.
You crowd your man. You eat right-hand leads. You counter and left-hook to the body.
You instigate exchanges. You trade in close.
You take to give. You forfeit your odds for survival. You eat shots. You absorb pain. You absorb pain to exhaust your man and exploit his openings. You absorb pain to assert your bravado.
You clinch when desperate. You backpedal when stunned or insensate. You fight coy to avert the brink and buy moments.
The body shots sap wind. The momentum saps will. The absorbed pain saps brain cells. The absorbed pain builds character and fatuous ideals.
Mexican boxing is lore.
Mexican fighters chew steaks. They drink the blood and spit out the meat.
Mexican fighters slurp mescal. They gargle and swallow the worm.
Mexican fighters do roadwork at 10,000 feet. Mexican fighters train in bordellos.
Mexican boxing is memory.
Fights in bullrings. Fights at weigh-ins. Fights at victory balls.
And in many ways that is a perfect description of the Morales/Barrera fight. But it is Ellroy’s subtle lead-up to the story makes it for me. In his characteristic fore-shortened prose he briefly describes encounters and discussions with waiters and bartenders about the Morales/Barrera fight—everyone tagged Barrera as washed up. He had been 43-0 before losing twice to Brooklyn’s own Junior Jones (in 1996 and 1997), after which many had wrote him off, especially when pitted against the emerging brilliance of Erik “El Terrible” Morales (who had a perfect record of 35-0-0) was an all-around boxer and fighter who had easily handled Junior Jones with a fourth round knock-out in 1998. But then the fight, a fight that was described with so much love and hope that it almost seemed like Ellroy had lost his voice. It was staccato, it was lean and mean, but there was hope in that fight. It was as if the fraud that was all too apparent, the end of innocence apathetically accepted has for a second been broken in the riung. It was a real fight, Morales choose to fight, not box, and the two went at it for what many refer to as one of boxing classic matches. Who won was insignificant, it was the moment, the idea that even in pornography there may be a trace of love.
You can find the full fight on YouTube—which, btw, is an amazing boxing archive—it comes in eight parts, and the this video which starts with the 5th round may be one of the best rounds ever fought.
(As an aside, I just discovered Rope Burns while writing this, which is my next read for sure.)
Ellroy is someone to savor. Well, for some of us. I read the second and third of the American Underworld, several of the earlier books, loving it all. There’s noir bleakness, yes, but also that manic energy you describe. Sometimes the combination reminds me of Andrew Vacchs, or Continental Op stories.
But they’re also spy stories, all of them, in every way. Which is a different thing.
This collection sounds tasty. Thanks for the pointer.
-Bryan, who can take and give mean right jabs
Yeah, Ellroy is a trip, and Blood’s a Rover can;t arrive soon enough. I think he published an excerpt from it in Playboy recently, which I might have to search out to hold me over for a bit.
The spy element is interesting, and I think it is compounded by the sexual voyeurism underlying all his work. Destination: Morguw! is great for this angle, because he talk extensively about his burglary and pantie stealing days in LA. What a nut.