Perfidia By James Ellroy
Knopf, 2014; 721 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
James Ellroy doesn’t flinch. He has a self-proclaimed “penchant for the extreme” that compels him to write America’s most shameful impulses into his historical fiction. It shouldn’t be surprising that he has imagined the ferocious murder of a Japanese American family in his latest novel, Perfidia, which is set at a time when anti-Japanese paranoia was at its height. Ellroy’s commitment to disabuse his readers of their romanticized or revisionist views of our nation’s history is commendable. However, in the case of Perfidia, historicity leads too often to myopia, trapping the novel’s universal concerns in the past.
Perfidia was teased by Ellroy’s agent as an “epic pop history of Los Angeles in the month of December, 1941.” At over 700 pages, the novel is certainly epic, but the history it portrays is hardly popular. Ellroy’s nose for what’s rotten in society leads him beneath the obvious hypocrisy of Japanese internment camps to the unsettling racist foundation that made the camps possible. Hideo Ashida, a savant with forensic prowess who is employed by the LAPD, must suffer racist slurs from Americans of all stripes and ethnicities even before the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Ashida’s own partner refers to him greedily as “my Jap.” Ellroy has admitted that, when researching the period, he was shocked by the “pervasive” and “casually expressed” racist language that could be found even in the transcripts of Senate floor debates. Perhaps that’s why slurs roll off of his characters’ tongues so artlessly and frequently, marking their racism in a way that feels contrived in spite of Ellroy’s research to the contrary.
The novel opens with the transcript of a radio broadcast by Gerald L. K. Smith, a peculiar figure in American history who once toured the nation promoting Huey Long’s “Share Our Wealth” plan even though he was fiercely racist and anticommunist. Smith’s radio tirade, which is both pro-Nazi and anti-Japanese, fittingly sets the stage for an orgy of irrationality. In contrast to sentimental notions of World War II as America’s last unambiguous war, Perfidia features a citizenry that doesn’t quite know who its enemies are. Smith seems to admire the persistence of Nazi troops (he describes them as having the “pep” to give U.S. troops a “fair fight”) but he refers to the Japanese as “heathen hornets.” Ashida’s mother seems to be a little too fond of Hirohito. Though the U.S. has yet to commit troops to fight in WWII, Ellroy already has his L.A. policemen debating the coming war between America and the Soviet Union. William Parker, a real-life figure who was still a traffic cop in 1941, matter-of-factly states that “the conflict will be largely ideological.” The characters in Perfidia are so prescient about the importance of their historical moment that they have a tendency to seem glued to December 1941 as opposed to living through it.
This fixedness, more than the novel’s dense and elaborate plot, made Perfidia a difficult read for me. Despite his clean, staccato prose style, Ellroy’s narrative diction lacks the subtle efficiency that would make Perfidia a great novel. Make no mistake, Ellroy has probed deep into subjects like homophobia, domestic terrorism, and police corruption in this novel. Unfortunately, these topics are too often relegated to rigid sentences like these: “He joined the Los Angeles Police Department in ’27. It was sickeningly corrupt. Protestant hoodlums ran the Department.” It’s easy to come away from the novel imagining that L.A. back in the ‘40s was extremely messed up. It’s harder to empathize with many of the book’s characters, who seem helplessly stuck there.