The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women

by James Ellroy

Published by Knopf

204 pages, 2010


The Demon Dog Examines His Own Curse

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

The North American reviews I’ve seen for The Hilliker Curse have mostly been astonishingly lukewarm, at best. This has been a head-scratcher because if you actually read the book you see that the writing here is sterling. Prose-wise, the Demon Dog of American Literature has never been in better shape. Mind you, it’s memoir and, as many people know through Ellroy’s earlier work of autobiographical non-fiction, My Dark Places, this author’s own story rivals that of any of his fictions. But the nail on the coffin for North American reviewers is probably the subtitle: My Pursuit of Women. Before you even get warmed up, a lot of reviewers are going to be compelled to either comment negatively on the book or ignore it. These are the soft and squishy times to which we’ve come.

The thing is, The Hilliker Curse is not a story that is either happy or sappy. There are few rainbows here, and the author of L.A. Confidential and The Cold Six Thousand doesn’t ride into the sunset in the end. This is a man whose childhood relationship with his mother was dysfunctional at best. In one of their stormy intervals, then ten-year-old James wished her dead. Three months later, she was. Unsurprisingly, as he grew to adulthood, Ellroy brought his issues with him, among them, a bucketful of oedipal guilt and a front end loader full of issues about women. And this would surprise you because...?

Don’t get me wrong: The Hilliker Curse is not a pretty read. And sometimes... well, you just wanna look away. But such is the power of this writer: when Ellroy implies something, you feel it all the way to your bones. And this time out, what you feel, sometimes, is the need to take a shower. But, like it or not, that’s power, as well.

We are dragged -- sometimes kicking and screaming -- through Ellroy’s love life. That’s not right. “Love life” is too pretty a name for what we experience here through Ellroy’s eyes and heart. His dysfunction is expected, but the depths of it sometimes surprises. But what truly breaks the heart here -- again and again -- is the beauty of Ellroy’s prose:

Helen hated me.

She suppressed it through my crack-up. I ran from the marriage and bled solicitude dry. I slept and brooded my way through the move west. Helen again did the shit work. I voyeur-perved women and full-time fantasized. Dudley died of a heart attack. Helen held a candlelight vigil and bid his soul heaven-bound. I ran from the sight of our beloved dog dead and passed out.

I could tell you about Helen and Dudley -- fill in the blanks -- but I shall not. For my purposes, that is not the point. What is: Ellroy is a lyricist with a noir palette. The Demon Dog is alive and well and perhaps even feeling somewhat hopeful. And a whack-load of reviewers might feel compelled to pooh-pooh this one, but Ellroy fans will eat it up. | November 2010


Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine and the author of several books.