- The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women by James Ellroy
Heinemann, 203 pp, £16.99, September 2010, ISBN 978 0 434 02064 5
When James Ellroy’s latest cod-cosmic rehash of his troubled – and troubling – life arrived on my doorstep I assumed the business of reacquainting myself with the terrain shouldn’t be that difficult. The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women is, on the face of it, a substantiation of Ellroy’s previous memoir, My Dark Places, in which he employed the true-crime plot device of hiring his own homicide detective, formerly of the LA sheriff’s department, in order to reopen the investigation into the unsolved murder of his mother, Jean Hilliker, in 1958. In this new piece of work Ellroy offers his readers – and who knows what they may make of it? – a different kind of case history, one of compacted self-delusion, grandiosity and monstrous self-pity.
Dutifully, I set to. I reread My Dark Places and once more exposed myself to the fanfaronade of his self-interrogation as he detailed the riven union of his fantasist father – a Hollywood bottom-feeder and jobbing bookkeeper with ‘a 16-inch schlong’ – and his mother, a Midwestern nurse, coolly efficient yet tippling towards alcoholism. Together with Ellroy I peeped in – and the suggestion of voyeurism is wholly apt – on the family’s break-up, and the ten-year-old future writer’s move with his mother from LA to the dusty peripheral zone of the San Gabriel Valley. Here the boy wished death on Jean Hilliker. Then she was murdered.
There followed an apprenticeship in skank, as Ellroy and his father – lost boys both – teetered from one walk-up apartment to the next, each more dogshit-bedizened than the last, mired in debt and poverty. Ellroy senior died when the writer was a lanky 17-year-old enlisted in the army, and so he copped an insane grief plea to get his discharge. Years of orphaned neglect spooled on; the boy Ellroy had – again by his own account – been a frantic peeping Tom and a determined fantasist; now he became an accomplished stalker, breaking into the tony Hancock Park homes of unattainable co-eds, rifling their knicker drawers and popping pills from the family medicine cabinets.
Pills and weed led to a fervid over the counter speed habit, and Ellroy lost another seven years to the Benzedrine-soaked wads torn from asthma inhalers; he slept in parks, he did jail time for petty crimes, he collapsed in the street with pneumonia, coughing up blood. Redemption was threefold: Alcoholics Anonymous rid him of his chemical dependency, golf caddying at swanky LA country clubs gave him physical fitness and the milieu for his first novel, and writing it chipped him from the sand trap of failure.
Thus far, thus familiar. In an era of literary professionalism, when the lives to be novelised are themselves characterised by the career choice of becoming a novelist, Ellroy’s dramatic arc flings him back into an earlier era. Like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler – to whom he is an obvious heir – Ellroy comes to the hardboiled school out of the raw life he seeks to fictionalise. But unlike theirs, Ellroy’s life – considered as the test-bed of his work – is absurdly over-determining. To have your mother murdered in the Los Angeles boondocks when you are ten; to grow up (or, in Ellroy’s case, simply grow taller) on a diet of the TV cop show Dragnet, and, more pertinently, the spin-off book, The Badge, written by its star, Jack Webb; well, add in the other stock ingredients – the isolation, the addiction, the bookishness (implicit, but never admitted to by a writer whose extreme low self-esteem demands that he be perceived as entirely sui generis) – and you would have to get an Ellroy out of the experiment, if not exactly this one.