'Widespread Panic' Might Be The Most Ellroy Book James Ellroy Has Ever Written
The Demon Dog of Crime Fiction is back, and this time around it's more boocoo bad business, crooked cops, pervs, prowlers, and putzo politicians than ever, and that's saying a lot. James Ellroy's Widespread Panic is quintessential Ellroy, but with enough alliteration, Hollyweird flavor, booze, distressed damsels, communist conspiracies, and extortion to make this the most Ellroy novel he's ever written.
In 1950's LA, Freddy Otash was the man to know and the man who knew it all, and he had photos and audio of everything. And that was in real life, not just in Ellroy's fictionalized account of Otash's escapades, which including having an (in)famous photo of Marlon Brando in a very compromising position. An ex-cop who became a private investigator and then quickly morphed into the beating heart of Confidential magazine, Otash had Hollywood in his pocket and was involved in secrets, rackets, and blackmail with everyone from James Dean — who worked for him for a while — to Senator John F. Kennedy.
Confidential was the premier scandalous rag of its time, and appearing on its pages was a nightmare for many celebrities and politicians. Otash was running the show, and Widespread Panic chronicles his rise and eventual fall as he becomes an informant while following a series of plots that include finding Rock Hudson a fake wife to hide his homosexuality and covering Kennedy's misdeeds to protect his political career.
"Baby, it's time to CONFESS." Thus begins Otash's recount of his time with Confidential and the series of people he interacted with, knew dark secrets about, protected, and blackmailed, and it's an impressive list: Paul Newman, Ava Gardner, Marlon Brando, Senator John F. Kennedy, Liz Taylor, Ingrid Bergman, John Wayne, Burt Lancaster, Alfred Hitchcock, and James Dean, to name a few. Ellroy brings them all to the page with a unique voice and mashes them into an uproarious, hyperviolent, sleazy narrative about Reds, feds, drugs, panty raids, dirty movies, secret rendezvouses, political turmoil, and shady pasts.
More than a single plot, Widespread Panic packs the most important events Otash was involved in, exposing the best and worst of his life in a rhizomatic, paranoid tale that blends fact and fiction while exposing the darkest dealings of the magazine, the Hollywood elite, the FBI, and the LAPD.
There are many superb elements here, but Otash's voice is what makes Widespread Panic wildly entertaining and memorable. Fast, snappy, and with a level of alliteration that dances between the brilliant and the ridiculous, Otash's voice is unlike anything else in contemporary fiction. It also contextualizes 1950s Hollyweird in full sin-emascope and nails the political gestalt of the decade, especially in LA. Here's how Otash describes the scene of a porn movie premier for Hollywood movers and shakers:
"It's the egalitarian epicenter of postwar America. It's a colossal convergence of the gilded and gorgeous, the defiled and demented, the lurid and the low-down. This seedy summit set the tone for the frazzled and fractured frisson that is our nation today."
Besides his memorable voice, Otash is, surprisingly, a likeable character. He's constantly looking for dirt on everyone and setting up bugs in houses and motel rooms across LA, but in his mind, he's a legend, he's Freon Freddy, the Shaman of Shakedown, the Tattle Tyrant Who Holds Hollywood Hostage, the Freewheeling Freedy O. However, he's smart enough to recognize the nature of his business and his own: "I'm a Pervdog. We're nativistically nocturnal. Our genus genuflects at moon fall and comes alive at nite. We seek succor in the scent of secret lives, half hidden. We peep, prowl, break, enter, SEEK."
When the authorities turn Otash into an informer, his change is palpable, but his nature remains unbreakable and despite "surfing a sicko surge of self-pity," he stays "poised to pounce." Despite every awful thing he does and every nasty exposé he publishes, Otash comes across as a natural Hollywood animal, the inevitable result of the filthy world he inhabited.
This book packs in everything Ellroy has obsessed about over the course of his career. There are echoes of American Tabloid here, the Black Dahlia makes an appearance, and it's a spiritual companion to L.A. Confidential. Nazi paraphernalia and smut films abound. However, Ellroy makes it feel fresh, and as Freddy O va-va-vooms on the hot-prowl downing Dexedrine and gulping Old Crow for breakfast, buckling up and reading on becomes the only option.
Widespread Panic is a macho noir-ish romp complete with historically accurate racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks. Anyone who's read Ellroy before—or heard him talk—knows his penchant for the underbelly of 1950s Hollywood can make his work ... not safe for work. But the stunning explosion of language he plasters on the page here is definitely worth the ride. The "foul owl with the death growl," as Ellroy calls himself, embodies Freddy Otash so well that this reads like a real confession, and it's more scandalous than anything ever printed in the lurid pages of Confidential.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.
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