THE MEMOIR WAS ONCE a venerable literary genre — more compelling and immediate than biography, more inclusive than the novel. There was only one requirement for an aspiring memoirist: do something interesting.
Unfortunately, many of my peers violated and vitiated this edict. Spurred on by a generation-wide sense of entitlement, Baby Boomers assumed that no matter how commonplace their lives and how jejune their experiences, readers would, for some unfathomable reason, find their self-indulgent ramblings fascinating. But this isn't really surprising.
What is surprising is that major publishers would be hornswoggled by these boring me-me-me-moirs and slam down big cash on the barrelhead for works that contain nothing original, intriguing, or important. If there's a troubled member in your family (mother, father, or sibling), you write a memoir. If you have a baby, you write a memoir. If you choose not to have a baby, you write a memoir. If you adopt, you write a memoir. If you employ Gestapo-like tactics to get your kids to practice the piano and study, you write a memoir. If you neglect your kids, you write a memoir.
In addition, a plethora of destructive behaviors that people used to have the good sense to discreetly overcome and not dump on strangers — including alcoholism, drug addiction, incest and compulsive gambling, eating and glue-sniffing — are now seen as springboards to a literary career. If your addiction is on the mild end of the spectrum and you have not endured sufficient degradation, you might be compelled to fabricate and call it a memoir. (Witness James Frey.)
One proviso, however: publishers are only interested in white, middle-class people with mundane personal stories or substance abuse problems. A black crackhead or a Latino dope fiend simply won't do.
Baby Boomers have bequeathed this watered-down genre (along with a crushing national debt) to the next generation, who are now getting revenge by writing memoirs about their dysfunctional Baby Boomer parents who reared them in communes, or stifled their creativity in conventional family prisons, or pressured them in a variety of non-felonious ways.
James Ellroy's The Hilliker Curse is a definite exception to this swarm of unearned Boomer recollections. When Ellroy was ten, his alcoholic mother Jean Hilliker was raped, strangled, and dumped on a roadway in El Monte. He dropped out of high school, and spent the next ten years as a drunk, drug addict, and petty criminal. His alcoholic father died shortly after Ellroy's psych discharge from the army, leaving him with a final bit of paternal counsel: "Try to pick up every waitress who serves you." Homeless for stretches, Ellroy lived in city parks and sold his plasma downtown. After a few bids in county jail, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and sobered up, worked as a golf caddy, and started writing. He published his first book at thirty, and soon earned critical acclaim for his quartet of historical crime novels set in Los Angeles, which included The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. This is a life worth writing about.
The seed of The Hilliker Curse was planted in 1957. Ellroy was staying at his mother's rundown apartment in El Monte, and she asked him whether he preferred to live with her or with...