The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women by James Ellroy. (Knopf, 224 pages)
I like James Ellroy. My favorite book of his — and I think his greatest — is American Tabloid,which is a take like no other on American history from 1958 to the end of 1963. Unlike the JFK conspiracy tracts and movies which beg you to accept their veracity but can’t escape their basis in puerile phantasm, American Tabloid — while not pretending to be anything other than complete fiction — can leave a reader wondering how in hell it could not be the truth. It’s so real, so perfect, so true to human nature. Dirtier than any conspiracy theory, messier and far more believable than any politicized take could be. As a literary achievement, it’s hard to argue that it is not Ellroy’s finest hour; all the darkness, madness and obsession is kept just enough in rein with a narrative that burns high-octane all the way yet somehow keeps driving within the lines of a crazy whiplash highway.
This new book is a memoir, with the pointed subtitle: “My Pursuit of Women.” The “Hilliker” of the curse named in the main title is Jean Hilliker, which is the maiden name of Ellroy’s mother. She was murdered in 1958, when James Ellroy was ten years old. Months previously she had asked him whether he wanted to live with her or with his father, from whom she was divorced. He unhesitatingly chose his father, and she hit him. He wished her dead, and then, shortly, she was. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ellroy identifies the resonances of this broken relationship and trauma as those which have driven his obsessive and conflicted relationships with women, both in the flesh and — maybe even more so — in his own head.
The writing of his novels and everything else in his life (not that there seems to be much else) is merely the backdrop for the story of his pursuit of women; it is an all-consuming pursuit aimed at filling a bleeding void and finding his purpose.
In some of his fiction writing, Ellroy has adapted various iterations of a short, punchy or even clipped style, pummeling the reader with relentless action and assertion, dispensing with the cushion of literary courtesy. Those were books telling the fictional stories of obsessive and violent men, usually on conflicted missions of law enforcement, vengeance and desire.
This memoir is written virtually cover to cover in short, assertive (although not clipped) sentences. It is one thing to write in this style about fictional characters doing crazy things, but dealing with one’s own life story this way amounts to a completely different level of brutality. A couple of fairly random paragraphs:
Late lessons unfolded. I was 31 and an unschooled zealot. I was covetous, jealous and possessive. I never questioned Penny’s honor. I lived in fear of her contentiousness and a streak of emotional absence. It was a fight I had to win. I was irrepressibly vigilant. I was always watching and assessing. I wanted Penny. She possessed significant human value and stood up to me. We were both intransigent and fearful. She was of me and therefore worthy of my obsessive attention. We were alternately brutally willful and sad-sackish. Her intelligence was diffuse and unimpeded by conceit. My brainpower was didactic and stupefyingly attuned to personal advancement.
Sex was sweaty and clumsy. Long arms and legs flailed. Nightstands collapsed, bathroom fixtures caved, pictures fell off of walls. Debate was active. Topical chat was frazzled. Penny yelled and sulked more than I did. My game was to apologize and re-seduce. Penny always evinced forgiveness — because I always listened to her and always showed up.
I can only imagine that writing in this style, on this subject matter, must be like standing in front of a mirror and repeatedly slapping yourself in the face. Albeit that it’s not a terrifically long book, Ellroy must surely have collapsed when he finished it. For the reader, it’s not so bad, however; the fast pace and the drollery of Ellroy’s almost-absurd candor both work to keep the pages turning easily.
As a story of the pursuit of women, it is certainly not quite the usual kind; i.e. the ones that would entail conquests proudly or wryly recounted. It is instead a story of decades wherein much time is spent sitting alone in the dark by the telephone imagining lovers who may never call nor even exist, staring at the faces of unknown women in public, peeping in the windows of other peoples’ homes or weeping in front of a poster of the operatic singer Anne Sofie Von Otter. It’s a story of darkness, isolation and sometimes frenzy, either in the absence of real women, or in the companionship of women with whom he connects but then, as he painfully and slowly discovers, with whom he cannot live. The bleeding hole he’s trying to staunch merely scabs over temporarily before gushing anew. He doesn’t blame the women — most of whom he portrays sympathetically and as essentially collateral victims of his own cursed pursuit.
And he credits God. It has to seem violently incongruous, of-course: A life of physical tumult, emotional chaos and dark obsession, littered with his broken marriages and those of his lovers — God is to be thanked for this? Yet, through it all, he holds onto the idea of God having a purpose for him, and the thought of this keeps him barely on the rails down which he’s racing. He insists on a Christian wedding at one point, although his wife-to-be has no special desire for one. The reverend — a woman — tells his bride that the marriage will fail, because Ellroy’s eyes dart around too much. But Ellroy is undeterred by the disapproval of clerics — he is seeking to do right by their boss (albeit that he pursues this doing right in a significantly unorthodox style).
Psychiatrists reading this book could certainly come up with a list of diagnoses longer than any of the chapters, but Ellroy is determinedly unclinical. There is no blame ladled upon his mother or father, despite their failings; there is only that which is, which has come from what was, and that which must be done to vitiate it and to finally turn the page. And the book ends on that note, with Ellroy’s belief, now aged 62, that the page has been turned.
A reader would have to be some form of extreme and heartless ghoul to finish this book and not hope and even pray that Ellroy is correct about that.
It is surely not like any other memoir you will read. For that it warrants five out of five, maybe, for that which it contains which you would not ever see anywhere else. And yet, it’s not like any other memoir you will read. For that it warrants only one of of five, perhaps, because of that which it lacks and which you might otherwise expect in the memoir of a great writer.
Although all but essential for Ellroy aficionados, I’m going to just about split the difference and give it eight out of ten for the general public. (But those Ellroy aficionados should consider it a nine and a half out of ten.)
Rating: Eight out of ten lead pipes.