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A ‘Tenuously Reformed Pervert’

Universal/Everett Collection
Hilary Swank in The Black Dahlia (2006), based on James Ellroy’s novel
All our work got us nowhere. We lived the dead-end/unsolved-crime metaphysic. I brooded in the dark with Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev. The music described romanticism’s descent into twentieth-century horror. It complemented my psychic state. I knew we’d never find the killer. I took copious notes on my emerging mental relationship with my mother. I understood that the force of my memoir would derive from a depiction of that inner journey. I erred in that regard. I knew that reconciliation was the only proper ending as I signed my book contract. I learned very little about Jean Hilliker’s death. I gained considerable knowledge about her life and structured my revelations in a salaciously self-serving manner.

(As if salaciously self-serving isn’t the very soul of American noir!)

But The Hilliker Curse takes for granted the reader’s knowledge of the violent and sordid murder case that is the primary material of My Dark Places, and the basis of Ellroy’s obsessions; the new book’s focus on the ever-shifting yet repetitive emotional consequences of the murder comes to seem, at about the midpoint of the book, formulaic and predictable, as if Ellroy had invented a narrative rife with Freudian-Oedipal significance to explain his obsessive fixation upon women, in the way that, for instance, William March “explains” the psychopathic behavior of his little-girl villain in The Bad Seed (1954)—evil is inherited genetically. Where in My Dark Places this material was painfully raw, fresh, and unassimilated, now in The Hilliker Curse it has become overfamiliar as a sort of “dead mom” shtick. There’s a measure of self-loathing amid Ellroy’s braggadocio in his depiction of a bookstore appearance:

The lectern was raised, the room was packed, I had a slay-the- audience view….
I read from My Dark Places….
May 28, ‘04…. The six-thousandth public performance of my dead-mother act.
I was boffo. I read from pitch-perfect memory and laid down even eye contact. I had a pulpit and an eons-deep Protestant bloodline. I was the predatory preacher prowling for prey….
A Q&A session followed. Two hundred sociologists—a dead-mom-tour first. A man asked me how I stage-managed grief.

(The boffo performance nets a willing woman—Ellroy’s next overwhelmingly passionate, if temporary infatuation.)

Both My Dark Places and The Hilliker Curse cover periods of time in James Ellroy’s life when he was enormously productive and inspired—writing the L.A. Quartet (The Black Dahlia, The Big Nowhere, L.A. Confidential, and White Jazz) and the Underworld USA Trilogy (American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Blood’s a Rover), by any measure among the most ambitious and accomplished crime fiction in the history of American literature—despite the impression the memoirs give of a personality alternately brooding and frantic and continually about to implode or vaporize. Until Ellroy, no one had seriously and extensively explored the mystery-detective genre as a means of reimagining history, in this case the links between organized crime and political corruption in Los Angeles in the 1950s (the L.A. Quartet) and more generally in the United States from the late 1950s to the early 1970s (the Underworld USA Trilogy).*

Certainly, no one had experimented with the essential structure and language of the traditional noir novel, a hybrid of romance and hard-boiled urban realism as conventional as a sonnet, as practiced by Raymond Chandler and imitated endlessly thereafter. Ellroy’s distinctive “telegraphic” prose style, first developed in The Big Nowhere as a practical means of cutting the overlong manuscript by one quarter, is coldly rebarbative but brilliantly suited to his unsentimental subject. Of the very long sequel to American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, Ellroy describes in The Hilliker Curse how he’d charted a “super-planetary” design for this deeply pessimistic overview of the 1960s:

My pace was Herculean. My focus was Draculean…. I read research briefs and compiled notes. The outline ran 345 pages. I foresaw a 1,000-page manuscript and a 700-page hardback.
America: four years, five months and 17 days of wild shit. Two hundred characters. Comparatively few women and a reduced romantic arc. An abbreviated style that would force readers to inject the book at my own breathless rate.
I wanted to create a work of art both enormous and coldly perfect. I wanted my standard passion to sizzle in the margins and diminish into typeface. I wanted readers to know that I was superior to all other writers and that I was in command of my claustrophobically compartmentalized and free-falling life.

A casualty of Ellroy’s twin obsessions at this time—with the writing of this original and demanding prose fiction and with his compulsive communion with fantasy incarnations of, among others, the Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and the dead poet Anne Sexton—was Ellroy’s second marriage. His wife sensed his fantasy infidelities and, reading the manuscript of the book, pronounced it “overlong, overplotted, and reader un-friendly. She said it was jittery and frayed and approximated my spiritual state.”

Not one to undersell his talents, Ellroy has said, in an interview in The New York Times, that he is “the greatest crime novelist who ever lived. I am to the crime novel in specific what Tolstoy is to the Russian novel and what Beethoven is to music”—though he might more accurately have aligned his work with the scale and range of Balzac’s Human Comedy, the obsessive intensity of Simenon’s crime novels, the stylistic eccentricities and unremitting misanthropy of Louis-Ferdinand Céline. No Tolstoy, as he is no Henry James, Ellroy more plausibly resembles an American approximation of Dostoevsky in such works as Notes from Underground and the breathlessly paced Crime and Punishment; the sprawling, intermittently feverish, and leaden The Possessed with its crowded cast of characters has affinities with Ellroy—to some readers, sheer genius; to others, unreadable. His more immediate forebears in the United States include Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross MacDonald—each of whom would have been appalled by Ellroy’s postmodernist variants on the traditional mystery-detective form—as well as Hunter S. Thompson, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Add Mickey Spillane’s detective Mike Hammer: “chick magnet and a Commie-snuff artiste.”

When its author isn’t charting oracular, visionary heights, The Hilliker Curse is often very funny. Ellroy is a master of what might be called noir-by-daylight: his jived-up loony language demystifies the aura of dread and fate usually associated with the genre. Instead of “saw” there is “eyeballed” or “eyeball-strafed”; there’s the mock stutter of “furious führer and furtive fantasist,” “pile on the pianissimo and postpone the pizzazz,” “I was resurrection-razzed and chaliced by chastity,” “love-starved and full of shit,” “I was frayed, fraught, french-fried and frazzled.” Ellroy is wonderfully dyspeptic, as unyielding as Mark Twain would have been on the nightmare mega-book-tour of five European countries and thirty-two US cities, consecutively:

Spring in Roma—who gives a shit? My publisher booked me a boss hotel suite…. I pulled the curtains and anchored them with heavy chairs. I had an epiphany and began reading the Gideon Bible placed in the nightstand drawer.
I got halfway through the Old Testament. Cancer cells started eating at me….
Amsterdam in spring?—Truly Shitsville. Pot fumes wafting out of coffeehouse doorways and horseflies turd-bombing canals.

Midway in the mega-tour, while The Cold Six Thousand ascends best-seller lists, Ellroy fantasizes “cancer-cell migration,” collapses “in slow motion [onto] a silk-brocade bed,” quits, and returns home to the long-suffering Helen, who is “all love” though soon to be embittered by her loss of status as what Ellroy calls The Other, in a diminished role as “crazy man’s nurse…depleted and furious.”

This wife, Ellroy’s second, the woman with whom he remains the longest—fourteen heroic years!—calls her husband “Zoo Animal” and “Big Dog,” and herself the “Zoo Animal’s Keeper.” She is identified as Helen Knode, a writer; apart from deserving the Patient Griselda Award as the most martyred of writer’s wives, she is capable of some vivid wordplay herself, as in this sudden, revealing outburst to Ellroy in the fall of 2003:

You drove around Carmel in shit-stained trousers. My friends heard you jacking off upstairs. You were vile to my family. You peeped women while you walked Dudley [their dog]. You went to a network pitch meeting, bombed. You’d dribbled ice cream on your shirt. An executive asked you to describe your TV pilot. You said it was about cops rousting fags and jigs. You ran your car off the 101 and came home bloody…. You became someone else as I watched helplessly and came to hate myself and doubt my own sanity for having stayed with you.

Ellroy and Helen are divorced on April 20. Ellroy and a new Other, named Joan—“The most stunning woman I had ever seen“—plan to be married on May 13. However, within a few pages, Joan departs. “She ran”—before the wedding.

Soon Karen arrives.

“Do you really believe that you conjured me?”
I said, “Yes. I do.”
“You saw me in a dream and put me in a book.”
“That’s correct…. I saw you quite clearly.”
“And you weren’t at all surprised when you met me twenty-odd years later?”
“No. Prophecy is a by-product of my extreme single-mindedness and the cultivation of solitude.”

Though Ellroy is deeply in love with this new incarnation of The Other—that is, Karen, married and the mother of two young daughters—he is unable to persuade her to “divorce her fruit husband” and marry him.

She’d say, “You don’t understand family. All you’ve got is your audience and your prey.”

It’s to Ellroy’s credit that he includes such quietly uttered observations—like flashes of lightning in a devastated landscape that seem to pass by him unremarked, but make perfect sense to the reader.

Soon Karen departs, replaced by another “new woman,” Erika—an L.A. writer, married and with two daughters—whom Los Angeles acquaintances characterize as an “opportunist.” However, Erika looks “startlingly like Jean Hilliker” and soon ascends to the status of The Other: “She possessed a heroic soul. She was Beethovian in her schizy grasp at life in all its horror and beauty.” At the time of the writing of The Hilliker Curse, Ellroy and Erika are still together: “Yes, baby. You’re absolutely right. This is the sweetest shit that’s ever been.” One lover notes “our cosmic dimensions” but “stops short of crediting God.” In the memoir’s concluding pages, which exude an air of having been hastily written, Ellroy declares:

I reject this woman as anything less than God’s greatest gift to me. I address her with the faith of a lifelong believer…. She is an alchemist’s casting of Jean Hilliker and something much more. She commands me to step out of the dark and into the light.

Buoyed by its manic tempo for the first 150 pages, The Hilliker Curse gradually loses momentum as the author’s voice begins to repeat itself, and the conjured women, for all that they excite the besotted Ellroy to exalted praise, blur into one another. The Hilliker Curse is finally less about singular individuals than about the chilling power of obsession, as the most rhapsodic love alliances come to seem, to the neutral observer, but variants of folie à deux. For as the memoirist has said, the sex fantasy is “endlessly repetitive and easily transferred.”

  1. *

    Ellroy is the inspiration for his fellow crime writer Michael Connelly’s Los Angeles homicide detective Hieronymus Bosch, a moody and sometimes violently inclined man whose mother, when he was a child, was brutally raped and murdered, and her assailant was never identified. Connelly’s Harry Bosch series—sixteen novels beginning with The Black Echo (1992); the most recent is The Reversal (2010)—ranks among the very best police procedurals in contemporary fiction and, like Ellroy’s more sprawling and more densely plotted novels, aspires to cultural significance far beyond the usual range of the genre. 

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