Love’s Labour Lost
By Nancy Powell
“Mother, I will never relinquish you. Mother, I will always seek your emblem. At least The Curse I inflicted upon you gave me this.”
—James Ellroy, from The Hilliker Curse
Some men live entire lives in pursuit of voracious appetites, and James Ellroy is one of them. His obsession—an overzealous protector of women with a love ’em and leave ’em ease—might just make him that much more despicable or pathetic, depending on the point of view. Voyeur, pervert, fatuous seeker of women who seeks to quiet the neurotic impulses that fire away in his mind and destroy the mythic embrace of his murdered mother. Where My Dark Places was a glimpse behind the twisted genius redeemed, The Hilliker Curse is nihilistic justification for why Ellroy must continuously seek to destroy that hard-earned redemption.
The sequel to his powerful memoir serves dual purposes. It is at once pious retribution and overzealous exaltation of one woman, the mythic Geneva “Jean” Hilliker, the mother who was murdered in cold, Black Dahlia fashion when Ellroy was the tender age of 10. In the opening chapters of the book, Ellroy relives his Freudian thoughts of his mother, her numbered days and subsequent disruptive influence of a dead-end father during his impressionable adolescence. His obsessive-compulsive hold on women builds. He is first a Peeping Tom, of his mother and the neighboring Hancock Park girls; after his descent and recovery from alcoholism and drugs, he turns his unflinching eye towards finding the one true love that will quash the ghost of Jean Hilliker. It is not his first wife, whom he divorces. Nor is it with his second marriage, to supposed soul mate and confidante, Helen Knode. She gets the raw end of the deal; a burgeoning career as novelist that’s derailed by Ellroy’s descent into insanity, a woman whose profound sacrifice he recognizes yet is powerless to stop.
His obsession is personified by “wed, impregnate, contain.” The woman he meets next, the wish named Joan, is the polar opposite in temperament and personality. She is left wing liberal feminist to Ellroy’s near right wing fascist. He starts an affair with her while married to Knode. As with each conquest, the courtship blossoms, but turns to obsession and possessive smothering. Pretty soon, his world revolves around perceived infidelities and jealousies run amuck: “Love me and save me and let me love and save you.”
It is sickening to behold Ellroy’s single-minded pursuit of women, a conservative fascist with borderline chauvinistic tendencies towards women, but who also somehow manages to remain the chivalrous knight gallivanting to her aid. Ellroy is genius incarnate when it comes to crime noir, but even with the enigma of Ellroy, he is no less gifted. As much as any woman would want to close the book completely and dismiss it as rubbish, Ellroy’s raw, emotive style and sheer force of will both draws and terrorizes the reader. We wish Ellroy the best of luck with his romantic exploits, but know by book’s end that any woman who braves Ellroy’s heart is doomed to suffer in the shadow of Jean Hilliker.
“I have spent five decades in search of one woman to destroy a myth . . . The Curse was half a blessing,” writes Ellroy. “I’ve survived just fine.”
Wishful thinking. Here’s to hoping that one of these days Ellroy finally finds what he is looking for.
The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women by James Ellroy. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 203 pgs. List price $24.95.