Destination: Morgue! Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although marketed as an original work, James Ellroy's Destination: Morgue! consists of fourteen short works, eleven of which were published in the magazine Gentlemen's Quarterly, where Ellroy was formerly a writer-at-large. The three previously unpublished pieces in Destination: Morgue! are novellas about a homicide detective, “Rhino” Rick Jensen and his lover, a famous television star. In short, they amount to a hard-hitting journey through the underside of Los Angeles and are best taken in small doses.

Justly celebrated for the style and subject matter of his Los Angeles quartet of novels—The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990), and White Jazz (1992)—Ellroy is among the most notorious of American writers working today.

Most readers are attracted or repelled by Ellroy's subject matter and literary style. In terms of style, Ellroy is noteworthy for his distinctive voice: a combination of concise sentences and self-consciously alliterative, repetitive, often vulgar wordplay. Structurally, Ellroy's paragraphs are short, consisting mainly of long chains of declarative subject-verb-object sentences with minimal internal transitions. For instance, in a short essay about the actor Robert Blake and the 2002 murder of Blake's wife, Ellroy writes, “[The facts] reign rancorous and raggedy-ass. They won’t mount a media Matterhorn. They define despair and ladle on lowlife ennui.” These quotations epitomize the Ellroy style, at least as it appears in Destination: Morgue! At its best, Ellroy's style is both powerful and efficient; the short sentences and paragraphs enable readers to speed quickly through the story or essay, absorbing the key points quickly. However, at its worst, this style resembles a laundry list transmitted via telegraph.

The subject matter of the short pieces will be familiar to most readers of Ellroy's other works. In a 2004 interview published in The Seattle Times, Ellroy described this book as an introduction to his obsessions, which include “murdered women, dogs, boxing, scandal-rag journalism, the death penalty, unsolved murders of women.” To this list could be included drug addiction, homophobia, violence for violence's sake, and self-obsessed biography. Other featured topics include honest, hardworking police officers confronting official corruption, rampant criminality, and an uncaring public.

The first essay in the book, “Balls to the Wall,” highlights a welterweight title fight between two Mexican boxers in Las Vegas. Interspersed with terse and alliterative descriptions of the action in the ring, Ellroy describes his early life in Los Angeles. His love of boxing was engendered in him by his father, Lee Ellroy, an oversexed man of many trades. Lee also taught his son a racist view of society in which Anglos dominated, Latinos aspired to Anglo status, and blacks were at the figurative bottom. To Lee, boxing measured a man's courage and machismo. This essay also introduces James Ellroy's interest in biographical self-flagellation. It almost goes without saying that James's first fight with a school friend ended ignominiously.

Lee's influence on his son is the subject of several other essays, including “Where I Get My Weird Shit” and “My Life as a Creep.” These essays go into greater detail about James Ellroy's life from the 1950's to the 1970's. Some of the highlights include the divorce of his parents when he was seven and his mother's murder when he was ten. As Ellroy describes, he found his mother in bed with strange men twice. As he suggests, she was attracted to dangerous men. Much later, the adult Ellroy suspected that her murder was a date rape gone extremely wrong. Although his essays do not describe his feelings at the time, it is hard not to wonder whether his fascination with unsolved murders—especially of women—stemmed from this ten-year-old boy's efforts to comprehend the brutality and incomprehensibility of the crime.

From this harsh beginning, Ellroy's life got even worse. Throughout the 1960's, he was aware of his difference from his peers and made no effort to fit in with them. As he relates it, in high school, he was one of the few Protestants in a school mainly attended by middle-class Jewish students. He was poor, gangly, had bad skin, and apparently tried to shock and repel others through anti-Semitic stunts. Certainly aware that he was an outsider, Ellroy describes his increasingly vituperative anti-Semitism and racism, including his claims that slavery should be reinstated and his avowed admiration for the Nazis. At home, Ellroy's father wore a yarmulke to annoy his fascist son.

Ellroy found his father increasingly ill. Thrown out of school for making an anti-Semitic speech in English class, Ellroy bummed around Los Angeles before joining the Army. Realizing that he had made a terrible mistake, Ellroy spent two months trying to convince military doctors that he was having a nervous breakdown. He was subsequently dishonorably discharged, shortly before his father's death in 1965. Through the rest of the 1960's, Ellroy lived in a variety of houses, hovels,...

(The entire section is 2122 words.)