Kemper's Reviews > The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy
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Aug 29, 2010

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bookshelves: biography, crime-mystery, non-fiction

Ellroy, I love your books, but I’m getting a little tired of hearing about your masturbation fantasies. *sigh*

OK, let’s take it from the top. Ladies and gentlemen, once again, the biography of James Ellroy:

James Ellroy was 10 in 1958 when his mother was raped and murdered. The case was never solved. His parents had been divorced, and he went to live with his father, a lazy two-bit hustler in L.A. Young James was socially awkward, had an overheated imagination and a child’s belief that he may have caused his mother’s death by wishing her dead shortly before she was actually killed.

With unacknowledged feelings for his mother shoved into the back of his mind, James’ intense obsessive personality and story telling nature along with a complete lack of parental guidance from his father led him to live inside his own head. He was obsessed with women and concocted elaborate fantasies about anyone he’d see. He loved crime stories and created scenarios where he was the hero who would ’save’ a woman. His father died. He become a drunk and drug user, sometimes homeless, who peeped women, and broke into houses to engage in petty theft and panty sniffing.

Eventually, a full-blown mental meltdown and physical collapse scared Ellroy off booze and drugs. He worked menial jobs at golf courses and started writing. He got published. He grew as a writer and wrote The Black Dahlia. He admits that he shamelessly exploited his mother’s death for book publicity. That book became part of something larger, his L.A. Quartet of crime novels. (Also containing L.A. Confidential.) He started rewriting U.S. history as an untold crime story in American Tabloid. He married a woman named Helen Knode who encouraged him to finally acknowledge his issues with his mother.

Ellroy hired a retired L.A. homicide detective and the two examined his mother’s murder. He tied that into his own history and wrote it up as My Dark Places, claiming that he was finally owning up to his debt to his mother. He and his wife moved to Kansas City just as the critical success of the film version of L.A. Confidential, and the raves for American Tabloid and My Dark Places brought him to the peak of his commercial and artistic success to date.

Ellroy claimed he’d finally put his past to bed, he was moving on to bigger and better novels, he loved his wife, he loved his new home in K.C. and he’d finally achieved the peace and stability he’d always needed.


I was here in K.C. during that period right after the release of My Dark Places and got to meet him a couple of times at some events. I even got my own little Q&A session with him for about fifteen minutes once. He gave every indication of being a guy who had survived a pretty ugly past, and was ready to move on. And apparently, it was all lies. Actually, that’s not right. Ellroy wasn’t lying exactly. It’s just that he’s obsessive about needing a narrative. He’s a writer. He needed a story to fit the very public figure he’d become. So he gave us one and sold himself on it, too.

What Ellroy reveals in The Hilliker Curse is that he’s never gotten over his whole mad obsession with finding Her. The woman he’s been fantasizing about since his mother got killed. He’s been looking for her since he was a pimply faced teen running wild in L.A., fueled by booze, drugs and crime fantasies. It eventually made him a great writer. It’s also made for a pretty fucked up life. It’s led him to countless obsessions, two divorces, adultery, and another full-blown mental crack-up in the early 2000s.

Ellroy’s self-admitted problem is that he often prefers to sit in a dark room fantasizing about Her, rather than dealing with real life with an actual woman. He knows he’s messed up. He claims he’s still on friendly terms with his last ex-wife and another woman that he had an affair with, and that they help keep him somewhat honest. But now he says that he has finally found The One. His long epic journey has at last led him the woman he’s always been seeking.

If I didn’t know about Ellroy, if I hadn’t met the man and listened to his previous story first-hand and bought it completely, then I’d probably believe him.

The key thing to remember is that he is an admitted opportunist and relentless self-promoter. When Black Dahlia released, he claimed that it was his final tribute to his mother. But when My Dark Places released, Ellroy said that what he’d said earlier was bullshit, and that he’d finally honestly examined his relationship to her and dealt with it there. And here we are 14 years later, and once again, Ellroy is telling us that wasn’t true either. Here’s the REAL story. And he’s so damn good that you can almost believe it. Again, I don’t think he’s lying. I think he’s narrating.

As an Ellroy fan, I enjoyed the book. It’s written in his trademark high-octane, ADD style. His behind the scenes account of his career explains why The Cold Six Thousand was unsatisfying, and how his breakdown and financial problems led to a decade of non-fiction, short stories and his involvement with bad movies. He appears to be back on track with the release of Blood’s A Rover last year and I’d like to believe that this new woman will finally lead him to happiness and lots of new novels.

But I feel like Charlie Brown running full tilt at the football just before Lucy yanks it away. I’m not falling for it again. I’m a fan of James Ellroy, I’m not his friend. I root for him to do well and want great books from him. In exchange, I’ll buy his work and spread the gospel. I’d like for him to be happy, but after reading two autobiographies by him, I’m doubting it’s possible.

Maybe he’s doomed to just sit in dark rooms and love his women via rich fantasies. If he needs to justify and rewrite his history to live with himself, that’s fine. We all do it to some extent. I just wish he’d use his talent in that area to write some new books instead of trying to convince us that this time he really, really, REALLY is telling us the true story.

4 stars for a terrifically well-written book and getting some idea of what happened during the last ten years his career. 2 stars for expecting us to believe him this time. So I’ll average it out and call it 3 stars.
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Comments (showing 1-19 of 19) (19 new)

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message 1: by Nancy (new)

Nancy Awesome review, as always.

Kemper Nancy wrote: "Awesome review, as always."

Thanks. I just realized that the review is almost as long as the book. Oops..

message 3: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie Great review!

Kemper Stephanie wrote: "Great review!"


message 5: by Marvin (new)

Marvin Great review. You summed up my own reservations about Ellroy better than I could myself.

message 6: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye I really enjoyed your review, Kemper.
If only Ellroy would be this honest with himself.
I have never been able to work out whether he is more obsessed with his mother or himself.
There is something deeply narcissistic about him, even though I love his writing.
Maybe we should ban him from writing in the first person for a decade or something.
He could find some new obsessions to write about, e.g., everybody else's.

message 7: by Stephanie (new)

Stephanie It sounds like Elroy had two paths. Either being a great writer or an evil serial killer. I'm glad he took the first path, because he could have been just as good as a serial killer.

message 8: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Stephanie wrote: "It sounds like Elroy had two paths. Either being a great writer or an evil serial killer. I'm glad he took the first path, because he could have been just as good as a serial killer."

Great insight. I wonder which choice would have taken the greatest courage,

message 9: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Brian wrote: "Writing at least pays the bills."

If you're lucky or good or both.

message 10: by Tuck (new)

Tuck joyce oates reviews this too in nyrb. she does a pretty good job, unfortunately i don't have the full text here, but from 4.28.11 issue

message 11: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Tuck wrote: "joyce oates reviews this too in nyrb. she does a pretty good job, unfortunately i don't have the full text here, but from 4.28.11 issue"

There is a really good interview and transcript here too:

"It's mysterious when your will has been towards self-deluded sexuality, a romantic misalliance, and when you meet someone who out-manoeuvres, out-loves, out-flanks and out-wills you at every single opportunity."

Kemper Thanks for the kind words everyone!

message 13: by mark (new)

mark monday this is fascinating stuff.

message 14: by Adam (new)

Adam My problem with Ellroy has always been that his persona is a major impediment to my enjoyment of his writing.

And I'm not even talking about his public persona.

His persona is part and parcel of his writing. Even if you had no idea who he was, what he looked like, or any of the details of his life, his prose is a thick, staccato barrage of self-infatuation. His only engagement is with himself and his own preoccupations.

Reading his books is like a tawdry encounter with him in a motel room in which he leaves immediately after skeeting on your chest, but instead of jizz running down into your armpits, you're covered in a pile of typewritten police reports.

This books sounds like his apotheosis.

Kemper Adam wrote: "My problem with Ellroy has always been that his persona is a major impediment to my enjoyment of his writing.

Now I feel like I need a shower...

I agree that his schtick has sometimes gotten in the way of his writing. He walks a razor's edge and when it works (American Tabloid & LA Confidential) I find it brilliant, but when he goes too far (The Cold Six Thousand or White Jazz) it's so over the top it almost becomes self-parody.

message 16: by Ian (new) - added it

Ian "Marvin" Graye Adam wrote: "My problem with Ellroy has always been that his persona is a major impediment to my enjoyment of his writing."

Great analogy.
Though, in the music context, I try not to let the singer's persona get in the way of a good song.
Otherwise I'd never have got into the Rolling Stones, on the strength of Mick Jagger.
Mind you, Keef's persona can hang around all day and all of the night.

message 17: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Really good review.

Kemper Moira wrote: "Really good review."


message 19: by Kirk (new)

Kirk Great stuff there, Kemper.

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