Finding roots of his troubled past in mother’s murder

ELLROY ELLROY (Franny Freeman)
By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / September 19, 2010

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Let no one accuse James Ellroy, acclaimed crime novelist and occasional memoirist, of stinting on truthfulness. Ellroy, whose 1997 memoir, “My Dark Places,” detailed the search for his mother’s killer, goes so far in his new book, “The Hilliker Curse,” as to castigate his earlier memoir for its artificial neatness: “I believed it then. I consider it fraudulent and dramatically expedient now.”

Preferring the messiness of real life to the elegantly structured resolutions of drama, Ellroy wants another crack at his own life — this time without what he sees as the pat happy ending. “Jean Hilliker would be 95 now. The Curse is 52 years old. I have spent five decades in search of one woman to destroy a myth.” “The Hilliker Curse,” then, is a second attempt at making sense of Ellroy’s misbegotten past, this time through the lens of the relationships with the women in his life. Each, in her own way, has been only a temporary replacement for his mother, the murdered Jean Hilliker.

Ellroy casts his memoir in the “Amazing Grace” mold — “I once was lost but now am found / Was blind, but now I see’’ — and everything, from his youthful peeping to his work as a novelist, is recast, molded into a reflection of his lifelong search for his mother. Mostly, what Ellroy is interested in is the string of women who have been his passions, his objects of pursuit, and his fixations for as long as he can remember. The chain begins with his mother, and Ellroy is, frankly, unashamedly Oedipal in his memories of her: “She walked out of a steam cloud and toweled herself off, naked. I slitted my eyes and memorized her body for the ten zillionth time.”

Ellroy was just 10 in 1958 when his mother was murdered. The killing would bring a tailspin of bedroom-window spying, getting high, and breaking and entering. He also established a pattern of pursuing strong women who reminded him of his mother — especially ones with a flash of dissatisfaction in their eyes: “I sensed sweetly what career womanizers know cold: female discontent is opportunity.” Ellroy is lacerating in his self-portrait of the self-destructive narcissist, never entirely committed to the women he lured in, while also using his tragic past, and his work, as a shield to hide behind when things inevitably went wrong.

There is more than a flash of humor, as well, to Ellroy, the self-described “feminist with the right-wing chivalry code,” pursuing highly educated, politically liberal college professors and writers. They hardly speak the same language, and Ellroy acquires a belated education in pop culture. “I asked her what punk rock meant . . . Joan called it a rebuttal to Ronald Reagan. I said that I disliked rock and roll and greatly admired Reagan.”

Ellroy is at his best when playing literary critic to his own work, refracting his novels through the lens of his mother’s death and his romantic relationships. He feelingly describes postponing the writing of his breakthrough novel “The Black Dahlia” until he felt ready to pay tribute to the real-life Dahlia, Elizabeth Short, and by extension, his mother. Ellroy is his own best reader, offering capsule-length critiques of his novels, like this précis of his acclaimed “L.A. Quartet”: “my hometown elegy and another giant contain-Jean Hilliker compartment. Those books were all Bad Men in Love with Strong Women. Those books reeked of A Man Meets A Woman — as historical L.A. intercedes and demands they change.”

His recent “Underworld U.S.A.” trilogy, which culminated in last year’s “Blood’s a Rover,” similarly transmutes his own romantic and sexual obsessions into fiction. Ellroy details the process whereby two onetime-girlfriends are transformed into Joan Klein and Karen Sifakis, the female protagonists and bruised consciences of “Blood.” Here, more than anywhere else, one gets a sense of Ellroy the obsessive and Ellroy the craftsman, transforming his personal life, and the often self-defeating strength of his own emotions, into art.

But if the explicit theme of the book is to be found in his repeated mantra, “I know it now. I didn’t know it then,” there are still limits to Ellroy’s self-knowledge. Dialogue that sounds convincingly hard-boiled emerging from the mouths of his fictional cops sounds ridiculous and borderline offensive.

The irony of “The Hilliker Curse” is that in rewriting his own past, Ellroy once more ties it up in the bow of a smiley-face resolution. This time, redemption comes in the form of Erika, a 40-something memoirist with a similarly troubled past whom Ellroy falls hard for, leaving behind his string of troubled relationships (and her marriage) to try again once more. “Together, we are sex and courage,” Ellroy says of himself and Erika. “Alone, we were skewed strains of self-will.” One cannot help but feel that this happy ending is more presumptive than Ellroy might prefer to acknowledge, and that he might have done better paying closer attention to one of his own well-wrought aphorisms: “Crazy boy, you still don’t know, no woman can save you.”

Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.’’ He can be reached at

THE HILLIKER CURSE: My Pursuit of Women
By James Ellroy
Knopf, 203 pp., $24.95