James Ellroy: The Hilliker Curse

James Ellroy: The Hilliker Curse

Toward the end of Blood’s A Rover, James Ellroy’s masterful conclusion to his Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, a character named Donald Crutchfield offers a simple explanation for a life of peeping into windows, and later turning private investigator and covert operative: “To make women love me.” Crutchfield’s name comes from a real-life detective, but his obsessions line up with Ellroy’s, and they share more than a few biographical details, so it’s no particular surprise to find that line at the opening of Ellroy’s new memoir, The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit Of Women. True to the subtitle, the book details a life spent yearning for love and sometimes finding it, in a search that’s remained remarkably active even as Ellroy enters his sixth decade.

This is Ellroy’s second memoir, and its predecessor naturally overshadows it. 1996’s My Dark Places found Ellroy investigating his mother’s murder while recounting the troubled years of addiction, voyeurism, and crime that followed. Even an account of an extremely active love life can’t help but feel less monumental by comparison. It doesn’t help that The Hilliker Curse, titled after Ellroy’s mother’s maiden name, revisits some of the same years as My Dark Places, even though Ellroy sees the book partially as an alternate take on his previous memoir, one focusing on the continued aftershocks of his loss rather than the story of the loss itself.

The murder has, per Ellroy’s own tortured self-reflection, left him pursuing “Her,” a woman he could love and protect as he never could his mother. Hilliker moves, haltingly, from Ellroy’s life as a young man to a nervous breakdown to the relatively recent dissolution of his second marriage, to writer Helen Knode. His love of women he can’t possess—lovers, passing acquaintances, women he never met—remains a constant. Ellroy is a remarkable storyteller, and Hilliker offers an abundance of his unmistakable gristle-and-bone prose style, but they don’t always serve a coherent narrative. As muscular philosophizing, however, it’s pretty compelling, peppered with Ellroy’s high-romantic ideas about fate, God, and love, even though it isn’t clear whether his own life—particularly its last-minute happy ending—really exemplifies his philosophical notions, or whether his faith in his own ideals has led him to view his life as a narrative that conforms to them. But that’s the sort of mystery nobody ever really gets to solve.

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