James Ellroy is known for his unusual yet appealing literary style, which is on full display in THE HILLIKER CURSE, his follow-up memoir to 1998’s MY DARK PLACES. It is brutally honest and contains some of the best sentences I’ve ever read in my life (one in particular, in which Ellroy describes getting what he wants, should be on his tombstone; if he doesn’t use it, I want it on mine) and some of the densest paragraphs you’ve ever wanted to stop reading. At times it’s like watching someone walk into a brick wall --- you want to alert them, but something makes you stand quietly and keep looking. At other times, it is so painfully revelatory that it reveals the hidden history not only of the author but also of the reader.
"...there is more than enough revealed in THE HILLIKER CURSE to cause upheaval in any psyche."
A great deal of Ellroy’s career concerns the death of his mother, Geneva (known as Jean) Hilliker. She was murdered by strangulation when Ellroy was just 10 years old, the victim of a crime that remains unsolved to this day. It is almost impossible to catalogue the multiple psychological traumas that a child of this age would experience as the result and in the aftermath of such an event. Ellroy discusses his efforts to obtain at least partial closure, including the hiring of a private investigator to re-open the case and determine the identity of the killer. He was unsuccessful in this regard. Similarly, his pursuit of women as significant others is darkly affected by his mother’s death, as in many ways he seeks a surrogate maternal comfort that was denied to him early on.
Here is where the narration, difficult in its denseness, takes an uncomfortable turn. One sees Ellroy constantly in pursuit of women he cannot or should not have. He’s attracted most strongly to females who seem to be his opposite in personality (those in relationships, for better or worse). Whether he is unsuccessful in initiating or maintaining the relationship, Ellroy blames himself, for reasons that the reader sees coming long before they occur, as if the movie reels in a theater have been shown out of order. And reading it can be excruciatingly painful. I recommended the book to a friend of mine, who seems caught up in destructive relationships. “You should read this,” I said. He emailed me a three-word message a few days later: “So should you.” And he was right. It’s difficult to do so without wondering if perhaps Ellroy has scraped the mental dermis down to a level heretofore undisturbed, one that lays a new set of nerve endings painfully raw and exposed.
For all of Ellroy’s honesty, however, there is one subject that seems to be given somewhat short shrift. His first marriage, he tells us, was to Mary from Akron, Ohio. He is uncharacteristically short on detail when it comes to the woman herself or the turmoil of the marriage. The subject is covered in less than two pages, the Ellroy equivalent of the dog that doesn’t bark, and is all the more intriguing for it. Regardless, there is more than enough revealed in THE HILLIKER CURSE to cause upheaval in any psyche.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 22, 2011