Novelist James Ellroy’s Handwritten White Jazz Heads to Auction for the First Time
Dallas – It looks, at first glance, like a colossal ransom note or madman’s manifesto – all-caps ballpoint-scribble filling 562 pages of hole-punched loose-leaf. Whole sentences crossed out; notations in red bleeding across the scrawl. A mess, yes. But also a masterpiece.
Contained in this heap of seemingly harried handwriting is novelist James Ellroy’s fourth and final installment in the so-called L.A. Quartet: 1992’s White Jazz. The book, about a lunatic, hateful Los Angeles police lieutenant murdering for the mob until the gun is aimed at him, is almost 30 years old and set in 1958. But its description of L.A. as Shakedown City at sunset – where the cops are criminals, made-up characters commit dirty deeds for real-life figures, and everything sacred is rendered profane – remains as piercing and prescient as anything set to be published tomorrow.
“There are so many layers, so many levels at which you can read an Ellroy book,” says Otto Penzler, the bookstore owner who once edited and published the novelist. “Obviously you can look at White Jazz, or any of his novels, as crime books, but they’re so much about politics, society, history. You can know a lot about L.A. in the 1940s and ‘50s when you read James Ellroy.”
For decades, Penzler owned his dear friend’s handwritten White Jazz manuscript, stored in a slipcase with red morocco spine labels tooled and lettered in gilt. But when Penzler made the decision in 2018 to sell his celebrated collection of mystery novels through Heritage Auctions, he let it all go – including the first draft of White Jazz, which is the culmination of a rich, sprawling, seedy story told in The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere and, most famously, L.A. Confidential.
And so the self-proclaimed Demon Dog of Crime Fiction’s masterpiece of sparse, savage prose finds itself in Heritage’s Oct. 15-16 Rare Books Signature Auction Featuring Otto Penzler Mystery Fiction Part III. It’s a must-own not only for Ellroy fans, but for disciples of Great American Literature.
In this manuscript you can see Ellroy sharpening his prose – trimming phrases, words, thoughts, pauses deemed unworthy and unnecessary. Through the blood-red edits you can watch him gut and peel away the copy until all that remains is sinew and bone. In White Jazz, the marksman’s machine-gun writing style found its bull’s-eye.
This is the book the Los Angeles Times called “bebop noir” and “hardboiled stream-of-consciousness” and “avant-garde.” The one Less Than Zero author Bret Easton Ellis said was “so stripped-down it’s almost surreal.” The one Hollywood famously tried to tame for the big screen but never could.
“No one else in the world can have it,” Penzler says of the White Jazz manuscript coming to market for the first time. “Ellroy is one of the great writers of the last century, and certainly one of the most significant and influential. A lot of writers tried to emulate his style. Mostly they failed. But that’s not his fault. Joyce Carol Oates called him the American Dostoevsky, and it’s a quote I frequently use because it does signify his importance.”