James Ellroy is nothing if not self-aware. Throughout his career, the pulp-crime master has spared himself no quarter, cultivating an alarmingly frank public persona as a creep and a curmudgeon, a speed freak and shoplifter–turned–snarling and sober sexual obsessive. In his new memoir, The Hilliker Curse, he unpacks the latter with the profane detail that is his stock-in-trade, crafting a lean, mean portrait of the artist as a young Peeping Tom—and the old, paranoid perv he grows into.
The subtitle of this latest self-dissection, My Pursuit of Women, lays bare Ellroy's agenda. The Hilliker of the title is his mother, Jean, raped and murdered in 1958, when her son was ten years old. Ellroy investigated her murder—and the calamitous number it did on his own psyche—in his 1996 memoir, My Dark Places. This new work is a follow-up of sorts—or, perhaps more accurately, variations on a theme. As seen through the dark glass of Ellroy's obsessive, warped relationships with women, this reworked autobiography writes and rewrites the arc of his doomed "love story" with his mother, spinning tales to both make sense of his own chaotic history and romanticize his serial failings.
The book chronicles Ellroy's search for salvation through women—his quest for the reborn Her who will allow him to make peace with She who was strangled and dumped by the side of the road. (The portentous capitalizations of female pronouns are Ellroy's, it need hardly be added.) On this mission, he burns through two marriages, an engagement, and innumerable intermediary liaisons. He constructs elaborate fantasy lives for women he sees on the street; he engineers a meeting with a married professor he's glimpsed only once, at a reading, and wills her to become his lover. He erects the scaffolding of epic romance around one folie à deux after another in an attempt to justify his scrambling lust.
Now I, like most readers, am thankfully not sleeping with Ellroy—so I'm free to revel in his gloriously abbreviated, hard-boiled prose. But beneath the taut language, Ellroy is, by his own unapologetic account, one deeply messed-up dude. He's a narcissist and a liar, an adulterer and a hypocrite, who perches the (real and imagined) women in his life atop pedestals and then petulantly knocks them to the ground when he doesn't get what he wants. Which raises the inevitable question: If a writer—or, hell, if a man—knows he's objectifying women, does that make it OK? Could it possibly even make him a feminist?
The most gripping stretch of The Hilliker Curse tackles Ellroy's explosive collision with writer Helen Knode, the former film critic for the LA Weekly who became his second wife. Knode, nine years his junior, leaps off the page as a fearsome intellectual equal whom Ellroy nicknames Cougar for her restless, prowling energy. (If nothing else, I'm grateful to her for prompting him to reclaim that honorable word from its current debased place in the lexicon.) Somewhere in his dissection of this (mostly) content, (relatively) stable phase of life, Ellroy starts dropping the F-word. "She grokked my weird-ass feminism," he writes of Knode. And later, "My tory feminism was playing out as a shuck."
But despite a rhapsodic stretch of married monogamy, followed by a last-ditch, Knode-initiated stab at an open marriage, that union, like the ones that precede and follow, can't survive Ellroy's own terminal discontent with the romantic status quo. On a book tour for My Dark Places, as he slides from paranoid hypochondria straight into a nervous breakdown, he compulsively returns to the women of his fantasy life, worrying over them like beads on a rosary: Anne Sexton, mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter, a lesbian FedEx driver, a gray-haired woman he espied on a transatlantic flight. "They were always there," he writes. "And They never caught me looking at Them and never felt endangered under my gaze. There was something sure and kind about each and every one of Them. They all embodied goodness and rectitude."
Real life, to Ellroy, is death; imaginary women are salvation. "So women will love me" is his acknowledged raison d'être—but, he writes elsewhere, "Wanting what I cannot have commands me to create large-scale art in compensation. My broad social arcs backdrop big love at all costs. I must contain these stories and create perfect love in book form."
The Hilliker Curse can be read as both a celebration of the contradictions of an unconventional life and the self-serving rationalizations of a damaged man. But it's no tale of feminist awakening. Because Ellroy's women are fantasies—even the Erika he believes, by the last variation, to be the One. They exist here as projections of his own frustrated desires, as loose-leaf on which he can endlessly revise his life story.
While this all may be swell for art, it's not feminism. Rather, it's the delirium of a man in the throes of religious ecstasy. A man in thrall to a creed whose god is Women—and in which each individual woman lends her name to a book of the Gospel of Him.
Martha Bayne is a writer and editor based in Chicago.