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Demon Dog or Faithful Retriever?

Years ago, having spent a couple of evenings in the wash of James Ellroy’s torrential self-dramatization, I began to reflect on his history—specifically, on the story of his mother who had been murdered when he was just ten, and how that current had carried him off into an obsession with sex and death. I wondered to myself, with thoughts I immediately felt guilty for, whether the desperate boy, the future writer, could have disposed of his own mother? Well, now it turns out that the same lurid plot line seems to have dawned on Ellroy, too.

Did I say “dawned”? What a quaint, nineteenth-century English Lit. word for the Technicolor sunrise of masturbation’s half-hourly renewal. This guy is convinced he killed his mother. After all, whose mother was she?

Ellroy’s new book injects his mother’s maiden name—Hilliker—into its veins and describes itself as just a memoir. But its subtitle, “My Pursuit of Women,” is more compulsive than candid, and it leaves one uncertain whether this is the demented recitative of Casanova or of Jack the Ripper, Céline or R. Crumb. It also reminds us that, just as Jack’s case is eternally unsolved (and therefore a great spur to mythology), so the murder of Jean Hilliker remains open in police files. (It occurred in 1958, two years before Psycho. Cue sinister music, trembling strings and ecstatic shrieks—did Beethoven ever write any of that Bernard Herrmann stuff?)

Ellroy’s parents were divorced. He was living with his mother in El Monte, east of Los Angeles, towards the desert, when one day she asked him whether he wanted to live with her or his father. “My dad,” he said:

She hit me.

I fell off the couch and gouged my head on a glass coffee table. Blood burst out of the cut. I called her a drunk and a whore. She knelt down and hit me again. A shutter stop blinked for her. She covered her mouth and pulled away from it all.

Blood trickled into my mouth. I recalled the book, I issued The Curse, I summoned her dead. She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.

That is the set-up and the hook that Ellroy has inserted in his own soul: he writes scarily well of the paranoia that cannot stop searching for lesions in his own skin, or flaws in his organism. Of course, he has covered the murder once already, in My Dark Places in 1996, a procedural memoir describing the attempt to investigate the killing nearly forty years later. So he is repeating himself here—but then he is a chronic obsessive. So he’s repeating himself—but Ellroy is a chronic obsessive whose well-honed riffs have become like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” for Judy Garland. It’s a song to be sung at every appearance, until knowing the words may crush their feeling. But whereas My Dark Places was hard-boiled, something like soft yolk comes into view here, with the idea of incipient breakdown in an Ellroy living alone, sleepless, driven, with a bust of Beethoven, his head full of romantic music. Norman Bates listened to Beethoven, too.

In prospect, The Hilliker Curse filled me with doubts, for it is impossible to decide whether the mother is an open wound or a convenient routine in the career of a flagrant L.A. Confidential best-selling author. In this book, Ellroy refers to a reading that he gave in Sacramento in 2004 as “the six thousandth public performance of my dead-mother act.” If you have ever heard him talk, you may share my quandary: is this a madman, a very smart guy pretending to be mad, or an astute trickster who has lost control of the trick? Imagine this six thousand times, not a confession but a boast:

"Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I’m James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right, and the slick trick with the donkey dick. I’m the author of 16 books, masterpieces all; they precede all my future masterpieces. These books will leave you reamed, steamed and drycleaned, tie-dyed, swept to the side, true-blued, tattooed and bah fongooed. These are books for the whole fuckin’ family, if the name of your family is the Manson family."

Imagine that ranting, rhyming insecurity, and the helpless passion for exposing it endlessly. Ellroy has proved in his L.A. crime novels—including The Black Dahlia, where he tried to co-opt that other unsolved murder into his personal closet—that he can write this stuff forever. With the threat that he will. Yes, it is unique, hypnotic, comic-absurd, and gruesome all at the same time, but the most gruesome thought is the one that asks us to consider it as real writing instead of vulgar shtick. Ellroy is so into himself that his book nurses its own sharpest reviews: “My extreme acuity was delusional and acutely self-serving,” or “I was desperate to write stories and touch women for real.”

Does he touch women? On the face of it, his style and his subject matter do not seem feminist-friendly. But there is no doubting the wolfish sexiness in Ellroy, the way in which women cannot tell from his eyes whether he is angry or hurt. He owns up to being a peeper and nearly a stalker. He admits that in his life and in his fantasy “the women were indistinguishable and each and every one unique.”

Alas, on the page, there is not enough uniqueness. Instead there is a way in which his women resemble his library: “The only books on shelves were my own books.” I don’t think that The Hilliker Curse’s larger conceit works. Ellroy wants to hope that he has laid the curse of the mother in his most recent discovery, a certain Erika. I do not mean to say anything against Erika, or their prospects together, but she isn’t nearly as alive in the book as Helen Knode, his second wife, and perhaps the woman who did the most to educate and to heal this determined cripple.

This is a criticism of the book, and another way of saying that Ellroy is imprisoned in his hectic, hysterical facility. If the language is jazzy, the meaning is thin. But there is much more to The Hilliker Curse. The bombastic language fades away as the book goes on. The prose becomes tough, lean, and direct, and the book lifts as we discover a decency and ordinariness in Ellroy’s breakdown. He may never live up to it, but finally this is his most humane and touching book. Will Erika save him? Can the curse be put to rest? Or is pursuit a drug Ellroy is addicted to? I can’t answer those questions, but any woman in his life needs to read the book carefully and remember this midnight whispering to himself: “Crazy boy, you still don’t know, no woman can save you.”

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder