Sunday, February 27, 2011

Unmanned (James Ellroy's The Hilliker Curse)

Leave it to James Ellroy to challenge the centuries-proven axiom that writers don't score with chicks. His new memoir, The Hilliker Curse (2010), is nutso even by the "Demon Dog"'s fairly liberal standards: subtitled My Pursuit of Women, it's Ellroy's return to his self-admitted "Dead Mother Act," and strong evidence that after more than fifty years the well has finally run dry. "The Curse," as he calls it, emanated from the time he wished his mother, Jean Hilliker, dead when he was nine years old (his parents had recently divorced), an entirely blameless act that has understandably influenced not only Ellroy's fiction but his real-life relationships with women. The Hilliker Curse makes the fatal error of assuming that the latter is as fascinating as the former.

Authenticity is always hard to tell with Ellroy, who vacillates between his private and public personas so smoothly it's possible that by now not even he knows the difference. There are times when The Hilliker Curse reads like an attempt to come clean about some less-than-wholesome thoughts and actions (e.g., his previous life as a peeping-tom, his pill-popping, his panic attacks), and other times when the author's braggadocio obnoxiously traces his pickup artistry. Much of the latter transpires at book readings, Ellroy's amusing go-to seduction method. (A typical passage: "I was boffo. I read from pitch-perfect memory and laid down even eye contact. I had a pulpit and an eons-deep Protestant bloodline. I was the predatory preacher prowling for prey. The woman was my pivot point.") The author's famous prose style works like gangbusters in his fiction; as autobiography, it's laughable.

Over a thankfully brisk 200 pages, Ellroy quickly introduces and abruptly jettisons one lover after another. The standout, Wife No. 2 Helen Knode, is a fellow crime writer who offers a perceptive take on her husband's The Cold Six Thousand: "She said it was jittery and frayed and approximated my spiritual state." For the book's sequel, she "urged me to create a less rigorous style and shape it with greater emotion." Ellroy ultimately leaves Helen but takes her advice, as we meet, in succession, the Joan and Karen who influenced identically-named characters in Blood's A Rover. Finally, we're left with Erika, a married-with-two-children woman who ends up divorcing her husband for Ellroy. "The bulk of Erika's many friends have censured her," he writes. "You left that sweet man for him?"

One can greatly admire an author's collective work, defend it as being most definitely not misogynistic (or any other charge leveled against it), and appreciate the factual catalysts for fictional characters and themes while still finding his latest foray a pointless waste of time. Similarly, one can be happy for the man while still feeling skeptical that a self-proclaimed opportunist has, at 60+ years of age, learned his lessons and won't repeat his mistakes. "For a right-wing religious nut, you've always seemed to lack faith," one of his Special Lady Friends observes. Ellroy attempts to counter this near the end of The Hilliker Curse, recounting a time when, as a young man, he was wandering aimlessly in a snowstorm, coughing up blood, only to find sanctuary in an office building with an unlocked doorknob beckoning him with an ethereal glow. "God left that door open for me," he writes. "I have no doubt about that." Perhaps. But even his most devoted readership may be left wondering why a writer as monumental as James Ellroy would want to become the next Mitch Albom.

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