- 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.
The Badge is instructive in all of this. Cited by Ellroy as his ur-text, it plays a role in his personal mythology analogous to that of You Can’t Win, Jack Black’s crim chapbook from 1926, which introduced the jejune William Burroughs to the outlaw lifestyle. The Badge is a breathlessly ingenuous account of Los Angeles’s competitive and notoriously corrupt law enforcement agencies in the 1940s and 1950s. Describing the last hours of 22-year-old Elizabeth Short – the so-called ‘Black Dahlia’, whose torture-murder was to stand proxy, in Ellroy’s psyche, for his mother’s murder – Webb writes: ‘Dozens of men must have observed her, for she spent the time waiting near the phone booths and she was, in her black cardigan jacket and skirt, white blouse, red shoes, red purse and beige sport coat, the kind of girl that men observe. Yet none offered a merciful, life-saving flirtation.’
It became part of Ellroy’s mission as a tyro writer to retroactively supply that life-saving flirtation, to forestall – and yet still paradoxically avenge – the inevitable, which Webb sets out in sparely exploitative prose: ‘The Dahlia had been roped and spread-eagled and then hour after hour, for possibly two or three days, slowly tortured with the little knife thrusts that hurt terribly but wouldn’t kill.’ Finally, tiring of his game, the psychopath slashed her mouth from ear to ear, so that Short ‘choked to death on her own blood’. But that wasn’t the end of it, for the construction of the enigma depends crucially on the dispensation of parts: ‘Afterwards, he (or she) drained the system of blood, scrubbed the body clean and even shampooed the hair. Then it was neatly cut in two and deposited at 39th and Norton.’
To the contemporary reader the ‘(or she)’ reads as a peculiar piece of chivalry, a willingness to believe sexually dichotomised women capable of such brutal dichotomies themselves. (Elsewhere Webb theorises that the killer may have been an enraged lesbian who chopped Short’s corpse in half for reasons of portability.) But to the adolescent Ellroy, riddled with the compounded guilt of Oedipus and Electra (recall that 16-inch paternal member), the juxtaposition of the attractive young woman leered at by a faceless male multitude, then bisected by one of its number, becomes the causal chain that he needs must loop and yank through narrative after narrative.
In his early novels, and in the LA Quartet to which The Black Dahlia belongs, Ellroy plots the geometry of innocent flesh on the bone (to adopt Bob Dylan’s horribly fitting trope) onto a more or less conventional mapping of the Southern Californian pays bas; the typology – corrupt cops, colourful gangsters, leering moguls and fat cats, foxy femmes fatales – already had an earnest political subtext, but although Ellroy blows this out of shape with his spume of racist, misogynist, homophobic and anti-semitic epithets, it’s never really the machinations of power that interest him. Rather, it is the incorporation of real-life characters – in particular, movie stars – into his stories, in the same way that Rita Hayworth was an adjunct to his father’s tale of might’ve-been (he was briefly the star’s business manager), that suggests Ellroy’s true preoccupation. As Baudrillard puts it in America: ‘The screen idols are immanent in the unfolding of life as a series of images. They are a system of luxury prefabrication, brilliant syntheses of the stereotypes of life and love. They embody one single passion only: the passion for images, and the immanence of desire in the image.’
When in The Hilliker Curse Ellroy recounts issuing the curse on his mother – she had struck him because when she asked him to choose between his parents, he opted for his father – he says that ‘a shutter stop blinked for her.’ The capturing of images of women is, Ellroy assures us, his metier; time and again throughout the text he boasts of his peerless memory, his ability to lie in a darkened room and conjure up faces of women seen decades before. ‘Women glimpsed for half seconds carry a spiritual weight equal to my long-term lovers.’ In a manner that is surpassingly creepy, he writes of a few conversations with a woman in a Laundromat in the early 1970s that led him to search for her on and off in succeeding years – and then decades – because not only does he believe in his powers of visual recall, he believes that by summoning an image of her he can also summon a flesh and blood woman. But of course, as befits the true romantic, who hangs a portrait of Beethoven above his bed and has ‘I will take Fate by the throat’ as his motto,
I was looking for one face. There can be only one. Thus she will be me and she will be the OTHER.
‘The Other’: My real self made whole by an image. My hurt salved by a loving female touch.
If Ellroy’s work represents an alternative history of postwar America it is only in the sense that his several personae – narrative, authorial, projected – between them triangulate this single, distinctively American passion, a passion that ever confuses sight with insight. Thus, we should neither take him at his own, self-serving word (which, in The Hilliker Curse, comes complete with standard-issue Oprahised self-flagellation), nor should we accept a critical estimation that was dizzied by its contemplation of the eccentric orrery of orbiting conspiracies that Ellroy concocted in his Underworld USA trilogy, a world-view out of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion by way of Oliver Stone. Ellroy would have us believe that his intention all along has been to expose misogynistic men for what they are, and yet ultimately his characterisations revert to the same type as those of any other male thriller writer. Pete Bondurant, the 6’5” thug who revolves through the trilogy, is fully representative: a Sensitive Man, whose hurt requires salving by a loving female touch, he has nonetheless ‘clipped’ more than 300 men in cold blood, and as I waded thigh-deep through the resultant gore the colossal improbability of such a man resolved into this conviction: that for Ellroy, Bondurant was the fictional equivalent of the real-life sot with which the alcoholic bolsters his denial, employing the stock formula, ‘At least he’s worse than me.’
Not, you appreciate, that I’ve read every single word of these three novels, which, taken in sum, weigh in at more than 1700 pages. It’s a testament to both the repetitive nature of Ellroy’s compulsions and the pop-cultural ubiquity of his obsessions that it took me at least 200 pages of my second pass at American Tabloid before I recalled having read it at all. Anyway, so far as I can see, only a reader with National Enquirer levels of credulousness would willingly subject himself to the relentless strafing of Ellroy’s de-evolved prose style. Again, in the earlier fiction, although there is the same staccato rhythm and near baroque deployment of slang – cars never skid, they ‘brodie’ (interestingly, his own coinage); women are never curvaceous but invariably ‘zaftig’, and so, wearingly, on – he had at least some adjectival and adverbial clauses, even the occasional faggot metaphor. However, by the time we get to The Cold Six Thousand all this has been winnowed away and we are assaulted by a telegraphese in which sentences take on two basic forms, either a weaponised jargon – seemingly put out by some Pentagon of the psyche – or a bizarrely atonal white jazz.
One example of each from The Hilliker Curse will do, for while the subject matter is superficially quite different from that of the Underworld trilithon, the style, tellingly, remains the same: ‘Our rapport mutualised’ and ‘Penny might be a coal burner! What if she required a hard black yard?’ Of course not all of the memoir is composed out of these holophrastic phrases, which, whatever else they may do, assuredly cry out ‘Look at me!’, while simultaneously conveying that their childlike author believes himself to be rendered invisible by the magical act of covering his own eyes. But there are enough of them to impart the sensation of witnessing a particularly grisly syntactic car crash, as the author brodies across the page. It may be tendentious of me, but in my experience addict writers, if untreated, tend to reveal their drug of choice in the rhythms of their prose style. Thus De Quincey spirals up into the leisurely, and eventually constipated, fugues of opiate intoxication, while Ellroy remains – on the page – the speed freak he once was, babbling and then crashing.
Yet what all of Ellroy’s writings have running through them most compellingly is conspiracy. I can’t bring myself to say ‘conspiracy theory’, for the ulterior machination he gives such credence to is too pervasive and too unstructured to qualify even for that twisted rubric. Rather, for Ellroy, political conspiracies are an exteriorised form of his own magical thought processes; the conventional explanations of historical events are a falsely rationalised shadowplay, the real manipulators of which – the Mob, corrupt pols and junk-pushing G-men – personify the unfettered collective id. The reason – like many, perhaps all, addicts – he has recourse to magical thought is that obsession and compulsion are his puppet-masters, twisting him unwillingly this way and that, forcing him to perform actions that can be justified only by recourse to esoteric motivation. In one bravura passage – and, however repugnant the underlying sentiments, he cannot be faulted for his ability to publicly dissect his own madness – Ellroy restages this perverse choreography: ‘I ignored the seat belt sign and jammed to the john. I spent 20 minutes looking for rips and tears in my eyes. The stewardess knocked. I told her I was all right. My bladder swelled. I took a long piss and became convinced I had diabetes. I rolled up my sleeves and examined a spot for metastasisation. My bowels swelled.’ And so, disturbingly, on throughout a multi-city book tour that sees him unravelling in such choice destinations as ‘Shitsville, Great Britain’.
In this memoir Ellroy dismisses his previous attempt to snap the ligature his mother’s murder tied around his young neck as ‘a specious task at the get-go’. For, while My Dark Places was framed as a ‘crime tale’, the truth is that ‘Jean Hilliker and I comprise a love story. It was born of shameful lust and shaped by the power of malediction … My precocious sexuality pre-shaped The Curse and preordained the resolution as my overweening desire for women.’ But really the earlier book was a model of probity and good forensic sense when set beside the loopy maundering of The Hilliker Curse. It’s not often that I read anything at all and fervently wish that its author had read – and absorbed – Freud’s theories on infant sexuality, but in truth it would take more than the understanding that almost all little boys fantasise about having sex with their mothers to put a stop to these kinds of conviction: ‘I possess prophetic powers. Their composition: extreme single-mindedness, superhuman persistence and the ability to ignore intrusions inflicted by the real world.’
I’ll spare you the full cosmology of Ellroy’s magical universe, but suffice to say his ‘pursuit of women’, whatever he may think about its metaphysical underpinnings, conforms stereotypically to the case histories of pathological male stalkers. Like them, Ellroy holds that his investiture of the mystical Other with superhuman powers justifies his inability to credit real women with real autonomy, hence his violent jealousy, and his racist fantasies concerning Penny’s desires. The stalker invariably believes himself empowered by his isolation, and sanctified by his creeping around the margins, while his target tacitly acquiesces to his gaze by the very fact of her imagistic presentation: by being seen, she has been summoned. Again and again Ellroy refers to his belief in God, but it’s hard not to imagine such a deity as being like the Gil-Martin who approaches Robert Wringham in James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, for Ellroy too seems to regard himself as one of the Elect. This – as Ellroy might well type himself – is sick shit, not least because The Hilliker Curse itself is a prolongation of such stalking, his wives and other liaisons (I can’t quite bring myself to say ‘lovers’) being clearly identifiable from the text. It is sad that this undoubtedly talented writer (and traumatised man) should be quite so ill, and disturbed enough to swallow the canard that writing this kind of ‘confessional’ memoir will prove cathartic – but far sadder that these women should be so exposed, so hounded.
Obviously there is no direct equivalence between what Ellroy does in these pages and what the unknown psychopath did to Elizabeth Short; nor do his crimes against women – so far as we can tell – seem to have amounted to much more than the derelictions and histrionics that many sick men inflict on women (or indeed, vice versa). Nevertheless, on finishing The Hilliker Curse I found it difficult not to think of the women Ellroy has dissected on the page as bearing a strong kinship to that corpse, drained of blood, its hair shampooed, then neatly cut in two and deposited at 39th and Norton.