JUNE 2, 2011
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 his father, a ne’er-do-well uncertified accountant working on the fringes of Hollywood.
I said, “My dad.”
She hit me.
I fell off the couch and gouged my head on a glass coffee table. Blood burst out of the cut. I called her a drunk and a whore. She knelt down and hit me again. A shutter stop blinked for her. She covered her mouth and pulled away from it all.
Blood trickled into my mouth … I issued The Curse, I summoned her dead. She was murdered three months later. She died at the apex of my hatred and equally burning lust.
At the time, Ellroy was convinced that he caused her death. The murder has never been solved — or resolved by Ellroy. It has remained his grand obsession, a source of Oedipal fixation, the haunting specter that has fueled his fiction, shaped his life, framed and distorted his relationships with women, sent him on a personal quest, and manufactured his public persona. Ellroy describes a reading he gave in Sacramento as “the six thousandth public performance of my dead-mother act.”
“I invoked The Curse a half century ago,” he writes. “It defines my life from my tenth birthday on … She is ubiquitous and never familiar. Other women loom flesh and blood … I wished her dead and mandated her murder. Women give me the world and hold the world tenuously safe for me. I cannot go to Them to find Her much longer. My obsessive will is too stretched.”
The book is subtitled My Pursuit of Women, and Ellroy does not disappoint. He chronicles his disturbing days as a teenage voyeur, breaking into young women’s homes, sniffing pillows and fondling their clothes; his episodes of cruising for hookers on Sunset; his infatuation with violinists and cellists, which led to countless evenings lurking outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; his many flings and dalliances; his A.A. trysts; his marriages; and finally his relationship with writer Erika Schickel, a woman who bears a striking resemblance to — you guessed it — his mother. “She’s an alchemist’s casting of Jean Hilliker,” Ellroy writes, “and something much more.”
An ex-wife calls it the “Tall Redhead Syndrome.”
At the end of the book, Ellroy seems to have found a measure of contentment, but the cost is high. His alliances and misalliances all seem to have a similar pattern of predation and protection. “The Hilliker Curse. Bylaw #1,” he writes: “You must protect all the women you love.”
He is drawn to women who are attached, dismissing their partners as “stooge boyfriends” and “fruit husbands.” He has a particular predilection for married women with daughters. One of them, named Karen, refused to leave her husband. After Schickel, who has two young daughters, does leave her husband for Ellroy, Karen tells him, “You finally destroyed a marriage. Mazel-fucking-tov.”
Ellroy is obsessed with the pursuit, and writes about his Facebook courtship of Schickel with great precision and self-awareness. He is less interested, however, in dwelling on the collateral damage. “She told him,” he writes. “He took it hard. That was mid-August. It’s now the following June. We’ve been together since.”
At times, it’s difficult to separate Ellroy’s sincere confession from his shtick. His familiar hipster bebop stylistics and penchant for alliteration sometimes get in the way of the narrative: “I was frayed, fraught, french-fried and frazzled … Pile on the pianissimo and postpone the pizzazz … It’s winging into the withering winter … Meander and milk the moment for meaning…”
As the book progresses, however, the gimmicks recede, lending way to smooth, stripped-down prose. Ellroy is a gifted storyteller, and, mixing humor with tragedy and unflinching honesty, he draws you into his world. He portrays the harrowing days of his nervous breakdown during a European book tour, and reveals a yearning and longing for family that belies his hardboiled image.
In his first volume of memoirs, My Dark Places (1996), Ellroy recounts his and a retired homicide detective’s unsuccessful attempt to solve the cold case of his mother’s murder. While that book had a procedural tone, The Hilliker Curse is a much more personal story. In both books, he touches only briefly on his transformation from a homeless high-school dropout to an internationally best-selling author.
For many writers, one memoir is too many. Ellroy enthusiasts, however, await a third — a compelling yarn of literary self-discovery and maturation.