Sunday, October 24, 2010

James Ellroy

from Saturday's Melbourne Age
The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women, by James Ellroy

During a 2006 book reading at the famous Skylight bookstore in East Hollywood, James Ellroy scanned the crowd of about two hundred fans and noted with satisfaction that about a third of them were women. After being introduced, he walked up to the lectern and addressed his audience: “Stop me now! It’s going to my head. I need a strong woman to tame me with her love and walk all over me in high, black boots.” After the reading seven women slipped him their phone numbers and he took three of them out to dinner.
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The Hilliker Curse is full of stuff like this. It’s a funny and self depreciating memoir that uses the framing device of James Ellroy’s relationships women as a way of filling in his post teen life story. His previous memoir, My Dark Places, unpacked the horrific events surrounding his mother’s unsolved murder and his years as an adolescent neo Nazi and borderline sex pervert who got his kicks from stalking girls, breaking into their houses and sniffing their soiled underwear.
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Well into his thirties he was haunted by the image of his sexually adventurous mother, Jean Hilliker, who he both loved and hated. (Shortly before she was murdered he told her that he wanted to live with his father and for that she slapped him so hard that it was still stinging fifty years later when he came to write about it.) Ellroy went to live with his wastrel father and became a junkie, alcoholic and ne’er do well who somehow felt that if only he could get his act together he would become a great artist like his idol, Beethoven. Beethoven, of course, was a product of the German Romantic movement and much of The Hilliker Curse feels like a Bildungsroman: the poverty stricken orphan struggles to make his way in the world and after many setbacks is triumphantly redeemed by the power of his pen.
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In another writer this could get pretty precious but Ellroy is an autodidact who dodged Freud and is thus able to tell his story in a straightforward manner without a lot of psychobabble. For the uninitiated, however, he has made few compromises in his prose style: verbs are dispensed with, sentences clipped and he often writes in the breathless tones of a 1950's scandal sheet. Ellroy doesn’t “look” he “peeps” or “scopes.” He doesn’t “remember things” he “time travels”. This can get a little bit exhausting and it is perhaps symptomatic of a larger problem with The Hilliker Curse. Ellroy’s view of women is old fashioned and all together too reverential. He puts women on a pedestal and worships them and then condemns them for not living up to this image of perfection. I was reminded of a scene from Mad Men when Peggy upbraids her mentor Freddy Rumson for his talk of “broads” and “dames” and explains to him that women and times have changed. Ellroy’s Rat Pack language and attitudes were already becoming out of date in 1965. Not that Ellroy was ever too concerned about the counter culture. He hated hippies, kept his hair short, didn’t like girls who wore too much make up or nail polish. In his twenties and early thirties his main encounters with women seem to have been with prostitutes that he initially only wanted to “speak to” before succumbing to their other attractions. After producing such modern classics as LA Confidential and American Tabloid Ellroy appears to have hung out with an awful lot of adoring fans and you have to wonder whether hookers and groupies are the best pool from which to build a theory of the female gender or to find that elusive mother/lover for whom he was searching.
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Interestingly I think Ellroy’s attitude towards women infects his fictional female characters too. I have never been completely convinced by any of them and they do not talk or act like any women I know, although, in his defense, no women I know are mixed up in plots to assassinate the President. Ellroy calls himself the “Tolstoy of crime fiction,” but you never really see him producing a character like Anna Karenina or Natalia Rostova. Then again, perhaps he was only kidding when he said that; he is one of America’s wittiest writers and The Hilliker Curse is full of hilarious scenes, many at his own expense. It is also scathingly honest and although it is not quite up there with My Dark Places it is certainly a worthy edition to the Ellroy canon and is recommended to both die hard fans and newbies alike.