When James Ellroy was ten years old, he summoned his mother dead; three months later, she was murdered. This story is told with merciless candor in Ellroy’s acclaimed 1996 memoir My Dark Places, which introduced the stunned guilt-ridden adolescent Ellroy, as well as the sex-obsessed younger adult Ellroy.
In the The Hilliker Curse, we mostly get the stunned, guilt-ridden, sex-obsessed late-middle-aged Ellroy. He’s just as self-lacerating and confessional, and yet also somehow more adolescent in his romantic sensibilities.
The hardcover version was released in 2010, but, given the author’s pulp-noir roots, the book seems more appropriate in paperback, preferably mass market over trade. The cover design is predictably pulpy: a voluptuously naked dame crisscrossed by crime scene tape emblazoned with the book’s title and subtitle, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women. Those two phrases capture the book’s overriding structure. Though the subtitle hints at a Don Juan checklist, this is something much sadder: the effects of a mother’s murder on a writer’s writing, as well as all his subsequent behavior with women.
Though reiterated throughout, this theme is expressed in one very fine mid-paragraph prologue-like passage, in which two sentences pass like disconnected, discrete thoughts until the third line cements them: “My storytelling gifts are imperviously strong and rooted in the moment that I wished her dead and mandated her murder. Women give me the world and hold the world tenuously safe for me. I cannot go to Them to find Her much longer.”
Those capitalized pronouns form the crux. Through willful, worshipful acts of art and love, Ellroy hopes to emancipate himself from what he calls “The Curse”, a conflation of young James’s initial willing of his mother’s death, that death itself, and finally something much more definite and lasting: “It defines my life from my tenth birthday on.” “The Curse” is not just the impetus of this book then, but of all James Ellroy books, and thus what one may, and in fact the author does call, the Book.
This book is written not in the telegraphic minimalist style of his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s A Rover), nor quite in the style of his L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, White Jazz), nor even in the procedural-memoiristic tone of My Dark Places, but as a kind of over-driven contemplative confessional mixed with an alliterative gossip rag that is at times purposely tawdry: “It’s the Season of My Discombobulation. It’s winging into the Withering Winter of My Dipshit Discontent.”
Often the prose strays into what I can only think to call a penumbral style, a voice that lurks in the shadows of concretization: “My watcher’s lifetime ran nearly four decades. My debilitating hunger was vaulted and lockboxed. I believed that it had given me mastery and an endless ticket to ride. Unbodied sex had almost proved fatal. I had sought death to prove my love to a ghost. It was the unconscious courting of a reunion.”
There is a concatenation of clear-headed expository writing (“Her harshness was a defensive posture and a moment-to-moment stance to propel her through the prosaic tasks of the world.”) with something more indefinite, an interplay of hard sense and mystification: “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 sadsackish. Her intelligence was diffuse and unimpeded by conceit. My brainpower was didactic and stupefyingly attuned to personal advancement.”
Certainly, to pull quotes is to excise from the cadence of the book, as there’s an incantatory momentum to the prose that often threatens to overload, until cooled by Ellroy’s murderous wit.
The funniest bits are his self-depictions, as in this description of a pre-Curse photograph: “A jungle gym, two slides and a sandbox clutter the foreground. I’m standing alone, stage left. I’m lurchlike big and unkempt. My upheaval is evident. A stranger would mark me as a fucked-up child in everyday duress…” Or this from his 20, hilariously out of step with the dope culture, “I was big, short-haired and some weird bookish/fierce-looking hybrid. I vibed rookie cop/faux hippie. Nobody would sell me dope.”
But the book is far from only funny. Again and again, the author calls forth or proses the curse, that is imitates its living aspect, in part through a refraining time-travel trick that sometimes links kid-Ellroy with man-Ellroy (“I did it then. I do it still.”), and other times, divides them: “I was an Ellroy then. I’m a Hilliker now… my bifurcated identity.”
This particular split was generated in the author’s childhood, pre-Curse and pre-murder. The mother, a registered nurse, and the father, a “Film-Biz Slave” and “Hollywood Bottom-Feeder”, married as opposites and separated early. Ellroy paints penetrating portraits of his parents in the pulpiest prose: “She had the stones. He had the bunco-artist gab and the grin. She always worked. He dodged work and schemed like Sergeant Bilko […] My parents split the sheets later that year. Jean Hilliker got primary custody. She put my dad on skates and rolled him to a cheap pad a few blocks away.”
A two-home arrangement, replete with diametrically questionable role modeling, increased an already divided persona. It also precipitated “The Curse”:
“[My mother] sat me down on the couch. You’re a young man now. You’re old enough to choose. Would you rather live with your dad or with me?
I said, “My dad.”
She hit me.
I fell off the couch and gouged my head on a glass coffee table. Blood burst out of the cut. I called her a drunk and a whore […] I issued The Curse, I summoned her dead. She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.”
How many children have performed a similar summoning, never to have their hexes fulfilled? For young James Hilliker Ellroy it worked. Subsequently, his one-time summons has been with him for the long-haunt.
In preparation for a writing career, the haunting initially manifests as peeping, not always in the looking-through-a-window sense: “I brooded. The practice entailed long stints alone in the dark. I thought about girls then. I brain-screened girls I’d seen at school and at church. It was a pure visual panoply. I did not impose story lines. I have formally brooded through to this moment. I lie in the dark, shut my eyes and think.”
Again, a sense of time-travel, from past tense to present, with the onanistic impulse transmuted in the process into a piece, or pieces, of confessional storytelling. Ellroy understands the shaping of this transmuted confession: “Content must dictate form. Form must be recognizable. Passion must never be squalid. Love must run in precise counterpoint to loss and death. That proportion stood [sic] as the basis of moral art.”
Confessions, of course, imply religiousness, and that’s just what Ellroy is—religious rather than spiritual, the former suggesting perhaps a ritualistic link with the Divine, the latter a permeation. Ellroy’s religio-romanticism ignited with a book his mother brought home, “wholesome kids’ fare [whose] overall text buttressed religious lore I believed in then and believe in today. “There’s a world we can’t see. It exists separately and concurrently with the real world. You enter this world by the offering of prayer and incantation […] Your interior world will give you what you want and what you need to survive. […]That book formally sanctioned me to lie still and conjure women.”
Continually, the author emphasizes this connection between the Divine, “The Curse” women and writing: “Faith magnetizes me. It allows me to adhere to the world as I trek a narrow path through it. I am most moved by what I sense coming and can in no way actually see. I pull stories out of thin air. I know that women I have summoned in dreams and mental snapshots will make their way to me. Divine presence forms the core of my gift.” The emphasis on that last line is mine, as it is on this: “God has always had a job for me. I’m the guy who lives to tell you the story.”
This story includes some excruciating confessions: “I masturbated myself bloody. I brain-screened faces for stern beauty and probity. The dope drizzled out of my system. I drank myself comatose and woke up in random shrubbery and jails.”
Ellroy’s down-and-out L.A. denizen-vibe is occasionally reminiscent of Charles Bukowski, only more introverted and prolix. Both writers carry lone-wolf authorial reputations, but where Bukowski’s misanthropy shields him, in a sense, from humanity, Ellroy, being religious, craves human fellowship and communion, and is thus more vulnerable. He’s still a loner, but one who is always open, indeed, one who prowls for interchanges of romantic transcendence. Their square peg-ism is similar, but I couldn’t imagine Bukowski writing, at least not with a straight, sober face, “The moral point of struggle is to overcome it and change,” let alone the following paragraph, worth quoting (nearly) in full:
“Yearning is my chief fount of inspiration. I live in that exalted state. The drama of women sought and fleetingly found competes with History as tidal wave. My dark-room communion has given me a world to rewrite. Wanting what I cannot have commands me to create large-scale art in compensation… I must contain these stories and create perfect love in book form… I must bestow grandeur on my mother’s death and err on empathy’s side with all my depictions of women… The Hilliker Curse charged me to sit in the dark and seek art.”
The question, I suppose, is how much do we really want or need to know about an author’s—really, a stranger’s—private and sexual life? Surely, all this “brain-screening” would be unbearable if there wasn’t at least some sense of redemption, however temporary. One may think of St. Augustine, and his famous prayer for delayed salvation (“Give me chastity and continence, but not yet…”), but I was reminded more (much more, actually) of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, another story of a man who finds grace only after debasing and chastising himself.
The Hilliker Curse is broken into six “female” parts, from Ellroy’s mother (“Her”), through a series of women (“Cougar”, “Goddess”, “Rain”), up to Ellroy’s current relationship with a woman who not only, with his mother, merits the pronoun “Her”, but inspires some hopeful poetry as well: “We are divinely deigned. Our bodiment was purchased by a mutual recklessness and refusal to forfeit belief in love. Together, we are sex and courage… Moments that build and form states of grace. I’ve entered one now. I feel transformed. I’m Beethoven with the late quartets and his hearing restored.”
For Ellroy’s sake, I hope so. I can’t think of another writer who has taken the term noir so personally.