James Ellroy has spent three decades stylizing his creepy childhood memories of 1950s Los Angeles to produce classic pulp fiction like "L.A. Confidential" and "The Black Dahlia." With seedy characters and violence as his palette, and antiquated hipster lingo as his brush, Ellroy has painted trashy masterpieces of sin and redemption. His critically acclaimed 1996 memoir, "My Dark Places," artfully examined how his mother's unsolved murder unhinged him, yet also instilled the kind of grim, sex-crime fascination that has allowed him to create the stories so many people have consumed with pleasure.
Ellroy's latest work, "The Hilliker Curse: My Pursuit of Women" (Alfred A. Knopf, 203 pages, $24.95), is another memoir, again dealing with his mother's murder. But where "My Dark Places" left a sense that Ellroy had come to a tenuous peace with his mother's memory, "The Hilliker Curse" suggests he's been messed up all along.
Hilliker was Ellroy's mother's maiden name, and the "curse" referred to in the title is Ellroy's dark superstition that, having wished his mother dead shortly before she ended up so, he caused his mother's death and endures karmic wrath. It's a classic surviving-child response, but Ellroy isn't interested in mundane pop psychology; he blames the curse for a lifetime's worth of dysfunctional relationships and obsessive behavior. The prose here is classic Ellroy: "My parents split the sheets later that year. ... She put my dad on skates and rolled him to a cheap pad a few blocks away. ... My father copped out to peeping."
Then came his resentment of his mother and her subsequent horrific murder. Ellroy's teens and 20s -- more fleshed out in "My Dark Places" than here -- were a delusional nightmare of speed, obsessive self-abuse, homelessness and petty crime. He developed a psycho-sexual obsession with his mother, and, even after success and sobriety, wastes chunks of his life "brain-screening": checking out of real life to conjure up a woman, an other, who will fill his aching need. He zeros in on women obsessively, hoping they will be her and then, of course, they are not.
"My Dark Places" left readers with the impression that Ellroy had used his unique perspective to create a writing voice, found commercial success, and seemed to come out of the darkness and find true love. "Hilliker" is much more frustrating and depressing, as it shows the onset of Ellroy's writing career changed his financial status and the class of women he had access to, but the yearning and obsessive thinking continued. The woman he was in love with at the end of "My Dark Places" turns out to have been just one in a string Ellroy has pursued, tormented and moved on from.
"The Hilliker Curse" presents readers with the awful spectacle of a man in his sixth decade enslaved by a concept of romantic idealism so unattainable a 16-year-old girl would abandon it. Were it written by anyone else, this self-obsessed, loosely constructed, woozy rumination on longing would probably be unreadable. But this is the Ellroy legend deconstructed and built up again, weirder, and less clear, and -- who knows? -- maybe less, maybe more, true. Reading it is the only way to understand that a man known for mining his own psyche may be the least self-aware of all.
Cherie Parker is a writer in Washington, D.C.