A Writer's Inner Demons
“Autobiography,” said George Orwell, “is not to be trusted unless it reveals something disgraceful.” But what if the subject of the autobiography is disgrace? How much are we to trust it then? James Ellroy’s The Hilliker Curse is about his lifelong search for “atonement in women.” It will shock only those who haven’t read his novels, but it should knock just about everybody back on their heels.
Ellroy was once fond of billing himself as “the greatest crime novelist who ever lived.” That was back when he was writing books like The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, and L.A. Confidential. Within a few years, though, he got tired of sitting at the children’s table of genre writer. As he told me in a 1996 Q&A for Interview magazine, “Fuck being a crime novelist when you can be a flat-out great novelist”—as if there was never a doubt in his mind that being either one was merely a matter of willpower.
He never finks out with rationalizations or easy apologies for his behavior, but puts them on full display in throbbing, kinetic, neon-lit prose.
Whether or not Ellroy has succeeded in reaching this loftier goal is difficult to say, but he certainly rates points for guts. With American Tabloid in 1995, he wrote a novel so huge as to risk leaving his mystery/thriller audience behind. Its commercial success combined with generally good critical reception helped pull Ellroy out of the crime sections of the big bookstores and onto the straight fiction shelves. Some critics still didn’t make room for him at the grownups' table; Ellroy ignored them, pulled up his own chair, and sat down.
With the next two installments of what he calls his “Underworld USA Trilogy,” The Cold Six Thousand (2003) and Blood’s A Rover (2009), Ellroy succeeded, at the very least, in his ambition, as he expressed it to me, of making “each succeeding book bigger, denser, more complex, more multi-layered, more multi-plotted, richer, darker, more stylized, and, dare I say it, more profound.” And they were. They were also exhausting in a way that his writing never was when he was cautiously probing and pushing the perimeters of crime fiction. Where do you go from there? Ellroy’s last three novels have clocked in at an average of more than 600 pages each; does he write another one denser, more complex, more multi-layered, etc.—and dare we ask, longer?
In The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy has gone back to the source of his neuroses and his art: the 1958 murder of his mother, Jean, (when he was 10 years old), his lifelong attraction to women, and his inability to maintain a lasting relationship with them. It’s turf he gingerly approached in 1996 with My Dark Places, cautiously planting flags on its perimeters. Now, at age 62, he’s prepared to take on the previously forbidden territory of his emotionally scarred psyche, screaming and waving a Claymore sword at his demons. His purposes would seem to be getting a load off his chest and recharging his creative battery.
Needless to say, if you’ve read any of Ellroy’s novels, this is powerful stuff. In comparison, Rousseau’s confessions read like a romance novel. “I was a dirty-minded child with a religious streak,” he tells us early on. Go fish, St. Augustine.
Young James—actually, young Lee Earle—was an odd child. Many kids from broken homes are lonely, but Ellroy “taped pictures of Beethoven over my bed and pondered our genius ... Beethoven understood my deep loneliness inside”—a burden Ludwig van shared with other geniuses, such as the Grass Roots and Lou Christie.
He lusted for his mother, an attractive registered nurse (she was a beauty contest winner and had once had a Hollywood screen test) who raised him practically without help from his shiftless father. “I pretended to sleep. She walked out of a steam cloud and toweled herself off, naked.”
Her murder, never solved, traumatized Ellroy, leaving a gaping emotional chasm that his books, no matter how big and dense, could never fill—“She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.”
Ellroy openly acknowledges that the last half-century or so of his life has pretty much been an attempt to recapture Jean Hilliker. “Yearning,” he writes, his desire practically dripping onto the page like wax from a burning candle, “is my chief font of inspiration. I live in that exalted state.” Maybe, but there’s a fine line between inspiration and obsession, and Ellroy is constantly weaving across it and back again.
As a young man, he perfected the dark art of slipping into the homes of girls and women he was enamored with: “Peggy’s house, Kay’s house, Cathy’s house, Missy’s house, Julie’s house, Joanne’s house ... they lived there. I could smell their secrets and touched their things.” One can only imagine the terror in the hearts of these young women had they known that the future author of The Hilliker Curse was loose in their homes; one can imagine what the reaction of any of his old girlfriends might be to reading this now. “Pet-access doors,” he writes with no hint of irony, “were made for me. Push back the rubber flap and trip the inside latch. Genetic determinism. It’s why you’ve got long arms.”
But beyond his unsettling habits, the book is also filled with childish slurs and vindictive insults toward his former lovers. “She was married to a Hebe ... Chris was a nympho.” And, “I pressured Karen to leave her fruit husband.” All the men attached to women he’s attracted to are, apparently, fruits.
There are many other derogatory terms that I haven’t heard since grade school. To get indignant over their use would be to play right into Ellroy’s hands—his intent is not to offend but to provoke. For years, critics have been calling him a bigot for scenes in books like L.A. Confidential where cops kick open doors with pre- Miranda glee and burn black or Mexican hoods, but I think Ellroy would just as happily write about cops kicking in doors and shooting Russian thugs if that’s the way they did things when he was growing up. The ethnic and sexual slurs he so casually tosses out are the ones that were being used during his formative years, and like the detective in Memento and most Republicans, Ellroy has a memory that reaches back to a certain time and then stops, unable to assimilate what has happened since. To his credit, he never finks out with rationalizations or easy apologies for his behavior, but puts them on full display in throbbing, kinetic, neon-lit prose that draws the reader into Ellroy’s head and thus into his pain.
Does The Hilliker Curse represent a kind of catharsis for James Ellroy, and if so, will having tamed his dragon hurt or help him as a novelist? On the very last page he seems to be on the verge of coming to terms with his mother’s ghost. Jean Hilliker “commands me to step out of the dark and into the light.” We’ll see. Recalling this lifetime of misspent passion must have been no picnic, and don’t expect one reading it—which doesn’t mean you’ll find it easy to put down.
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and the Village Voice. He also writes about books for Salon.com, Bookforum, and The Washington Post. His latest book is Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee.