A ‘Tenuously Reformed Pervert’

Dominique Nabokov
James Ellroy, New York City, 1989

God engages me through women. My task has always been to bring women to God.

—James Ellroy

James Ellroy is, he tells us, “lurchlike big and unkempt.” He’s a “dirty-minded child with a religious streak”—his first “booze blackout” is at age nine. He “brain-screens” and “scopes out” girls and soon after “stalks” and “side-tails” them. He’s a lonely misfit child who lives to “read, brood, peep, stalk, skulk and fantasize,” in the grip of a “kiddie-noir predation.” After his parents “split the sheets” in 1955, he and his “bunco-artist,” “Hollywood Bottom-Feeder” dad with the “sixteen-inch schlong” live together not in an apartment in Santa Monica but in a “pad.” His dad makes of him a “co-defiler” of his mother: “His mantra was, She’s a drunk and a whore.”

Even before his mother, Jean Hilliker Ellroy—“pale skin and red hair, center-parted”—is raped and strangled in 1958 and her murderer never identified, he’s fixated on the female as The Other and has succumbed to The Curse: “I hated [my mother] because I wanted her in unspeakable ways.” He’s a loiterer, a voyeur, a “pious Protestant boy” whose gaze is drawn to “any and all nearby women.” In adolescence his hormones “hosanna” and he becomes a compulsive burglar—a “B&E artiste”—who leaves no clues behind and is never caught. As once he’d sat in his beautiful red- haired mother’s clothes closet and inhaled the smell of her lingerie and nurse’s uniforms, so in the homes of schoolgirls of his acquaintance he lies “on Their beds…[runs] his nose over Their pillows…[steals] sets of lingerie.” After high school he’s “psych-discharged from three months in the army.”

He becomes a Benzedrine addict: “cotton wads soaked in an amphetamine-based solution,” “an ever-tapable source of jack-off sex.” He veers “very close to psychosis”—“I twitched, lurched and betrayed my mental state”—until at age twenty-nine in August 1977 he begins attending AA meetings and quits “booze, weed and pharmaceutical uppers” as well as “shoplifting and breaking into houses.” He becomes a “tenuously reformed pervert, adrift,” convinced that he has discovered God’s mission for him: “to write books and find The Other.”

But this is a brief respite. The sex fantasy is “endlessly repetitive and easily transferred.” In the throes of his pursuit of The Other—“her, her, her or Her?”—the hypersexed and hyperventilating narrator of The Hilliker Curse soon reverts to his default-perve self: lurks in bookstores near the UCLA campus, returns to L.A. haunts where he continues to peep, skulk, stalk, and generally pursue women with the passionate intensity of a visionary, or a serial killer in the making. An obsession with Beethoven—“Beethoven was the only artist in history to rival the unknown and unpublished Ellroy”—leads him to stake out the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where, after concerts,

women with violins and cellos scooted out rear exits…. Single women walked out,…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.