‘A self-inflicted summons to compulsion and predation.’
Crime writer James Ellroy’s most compelling mystery story has always been his own. In 1958, when he was 10 years old, his mother, Jean, was found strangled to death near a high-school playing field in El Monte, Calif. The trauma of her unsolved murder has underscored and fueled Mr. Ellroy’s fiction, not only his neo-noir historical crime novels, like “L.A. Confidential” and “The Black Dahlia,” but also his exploration of the secret history of the 1960s in the trilogy that includes “American Tabloid.”
In his 1996 memoir, “My Dark Places,” Mr. Ellroy recounted his unsuccessful attempt to solve his mother’s murder with the help of a retired police detective. Now, in “The Hilliker Curse,” he explores a related quest: his perverse, compulsive and often self-lacerating search for a redemptive lover to take his dead mother’s place.
The book is brief, but it covers a world of pain. In dense, explicit and yet jazzily lyrical prose, Mr. Ellroy recounts his masochistic voyeurism; his periods of breaking into women’s homes to fondle and smell and steal their possessions; his drug and alcohol addiction; his tormented dalliances with prostitutes, fans and fantasy girls; a loving but often sexless marriage; and a shattering nervous breakdown at the height of his career. None of this is necessarily shocking news or even revelatory. Mr. Ellroy has been making something of a traveling show of his paraphilia for years. He describes one “knockout performance” at a bookstore reading where he announced to his fans: “I need a strong woman to tame me with her love and walk all over me in high black boots.” Seven women slipped him their phone numbers.
But “The Hilliker Curse”—his mother’s maiden name was Hilliker—is not meant to be merely a confession. It is an act of creation, Mr. Ellroy’s attempt to take the reader into the experience of his anguish and aberrations. It is a show, all right, there is no question about that. He intends to dazzle and seduce us with the romance of his suffering perversity. But there’s a truth of feeling in it, too, an underlying sense of what it is actually like to live in the vortex of an impossible yearning.
Mr. Ellroy doesn’t waste too much time on the psychology of it all. He is clear that the core complex of his desire pre-dates his mother’s murder. His voyeurism seems rooted at least in part in her seductive behavior toward him and in the paranoid hostility of his father, her wastrel ex-husband. The murder, though, torched that fuel, and the fire was made unquenchable by what he calls the Hilliker curse.
The curse, Mr. Ellroy says, was begotten on his 10th birthday. His mother, drunk, slapped him. “I summoned her dead,” he writes. “She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.” The curse then blew back on him, becoming “a self-inflicted summons to compulsion and predation,” unhappily mingled with the guilt-ridden need to find salvation in a woman and to protect her from harm.
But if Mr. Ellroy only touches on the causes of his obsession, he is expert and relentless at dramatizing its effects. He captures beautifully the way in which sexual and emotional disorders can feel at once alien and inescapably personal. His description of his hypochondriacal collapse during a “mega book tour” through Europe and America is agonizing. In Rome, “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. . . . I got halfway through the Old Testament. Cancer cells started eating at me. I ran to the bathroom and scratched my arms bloody.” Anyone who has been through mental crisis will recognize the painful precision of his account.
Yet Mr. Ellroy also manages to suggest the ways in which such obsessions and crises serve as the novelist’s muse. “Yearning is my chief fount of inspiration. I live in that exalted state,” he writes. “Wanting what I cannot have commands me to create large-scale art in compensation.”
Only the book’s coda rings false. While Mr. Ellroy acknowledges that his previous memoir suffered from a forced sense of closure—an imposition of form over content—he repeats the error here. “The Hilliker Curse” ends on a tin note of triumphant resolution. New love is found. Writing will exorcise the past. “The dominant story line of my life will dissolve on the last page I write here.”
It would be pretty to think so. Yet one has the feeling that there is as much hidden here as revealed, that Mr. Ellroy’s belligerent candor disguises some deeper and still secret shame. How could it be otherwise? Every confession is also a mask. As all good crime writers understand: There’s no bottom to the perversity of the human heart.
Mr. Klavan’s latest thriller, “The Identity Man,” will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in November.
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