Friday, 17 September 2010


My review of James Ellroy's autobiographical The Hilliker Curse appears in this week's Spectator; you can link to it here. It was a short-piece shortened even further for the space limitations of the slot (an unexpected change in typeface), so I've included the bits cut from it below. Ellroy's curse apparently also extends to review headlines, as the Spectator turned Hilliker into Hillicker, a typo Ellroy himself might enjoy.

It's not a great book, but it is involving. The basic problem is that Ellroy the Demon Dog and Ellroy the sensitive confessor are often fighting each other for control. He's far too self-aware to not realise this, but he can't help but relish the persona he created and sold to the reading public (which is not to diminish in the slightest the real achievement of his fiction, and his earlier memoir). He's too honest not to see its flaws, but at heart he's still selling the idea of the great romantic (in both the sexual and artistic senses) genius and drive behind the Dog. I've seen it first-hand and I've admired the self-control it must've taken to write his stuff and maintain his public image. I said so in a long essay I wrote some years ago for Headpress, which I will reprint here soon.

The self-control failed him, and he describes his breakdown, but doesn't really detail it enough. It is the one area where the curtain remains somewhat drawn. To me, that was the most interesting part of the book, apart perhaps from the detail about the composition of Brown's Requiem, his outstanding first novel. My comments on that were most of what was lost from the piece as published; they're the italicised bits of what follows:

This Ellroy suffered a huge break-down while promoting his most challenging novel, The Cold Six Thousand, but most resembles Dave Klein, the bad cop whose life is burning down in his most-overlooked novel, White Jazz. 'It felt like film noir', Ellroy says, but his women aren't femme fatales, nor is he the slightly stupid lug such women manipulate. From his early days as a peeping tom through his two marriages, Ellroy obsesses; each woman is the most beautiful he has ever seen, each his true soul mate. Meanwhile he continues to moon over his poster of Annie Sofie von Otter.

It was a kindler, gentler Ellroy who came through Britain this year, with the final volume of the Underworld USA trilogy; and that was a different sort of book, too, with women at its core and a character who was recognisably Ellroy himself. Yet that woman is another of his romanticised figures, and it is that romanticism which stops the women in The Hilliker Curse from stepping out at us as real figures. We get his obsession, we get what he sees in them, but we don't get what they really are. Perhaps because he didn't get it, and perhaps that's the root
of the relationships' failures. They are, in every sense, characters.

That's what we get here: fact blending into fiction blending into fact. One reviewer, a famous novelist himself, somehow came away with the idea the cellist from Brown's Requiem, his extraordinary first novel, was one of the real ones. It says something about Ellroy's talent. And it reminds us just how good his writing was from the start; I treasure my old Avon copy of Brown's Requiem (now signed by the author) and looking at it again helps me appreciate just how far Ellroy has come as an artist. I wrote in my original copy that this book uses a rough mix of familiar tropes and more revelation than those not Ellroy-embedded might require. There are many who are indeed Ellroy-embedded, but as he confesses here, in The Cold Six Thousand he may have, at least half-consciously, been trying to test the level of their committment. That in itself may be just one of the revelations that may try those not needing so much detail. But that's where the devil lies...

The Hilliker Curse by James Ellroy

William Heinemann £16.99 ISBN 9780434020645


LA Hound said...

I do not know about the Spectator piece but, wow, was the second paragraph of this blog entry written straight onto the screen? All those brackets: readers so have to catch their breath while disentangling it that you can almost hear the siren of the paramedics' arrival.

To write long sentences requires the skill of a Chandler, who is so often though laconic.

dlwilson26 said...

I think your review Michael is right on the mark. After reading "The Hilliker Curse" you are compelled to compare it to Ellroy's first memoir "My Dark Places" which I think is a much better book.

In "The Hilliker Curse" Ellroy talks a little about his career. The publisher came to him with the idea to do "My Dark Places." Go out and review the evidence in your mother's murder case. Talk to the people who arestill around. Hire a retired homicide detective to help you work the
case. Then write about how you feel about it. Ellroy sure warmed tothe task and almost objectified himself. Most of the book was in that detached clinical voice.
That is an incredible achievement.

This book, "The Hilliker Curse," I think must have been his idea. It
reads like a justification of why he is a fuck up. There are some
moments of sharp insight, also an incredible achievement. But there is too much "demon dog" in there to
cover up what must be some really painful emotions.

Michael Carlson said...

yes, it's true that most of these blog entries are written directly on screen, though usually I try to prooifread them. As far as I know, no paramedics have yet been called for sub-clausal entanglement issues....

is that 'thought', not 'though' tho?