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Review: 'The Hilliker Curse' by James Ellroy

Crime novelist James Ellroy wants more. When you think of great American writers, he wants you to conjure a group portrait that includes his glaring visage. He wants this even if he has to put the picture in your head. And as he says in his memoir, The Hilliker Curse (Knopf, $24.95), he always gets what he wants.

In this case, that largely means women. Women have been the maypole around which Ellroy has danced for all of his years since he first became obsessed with women, March 1958, when he was an adolescent and his mother was murdered.

There has always been about Ellroy a sense of self-awareness bordering upon self-obsession; in person and on paper he chews the scenery. Here he reveals that his life has been a connected string of obsessions under the roof of his uber-obsession, his murdered mother. His breakthrough novel was The Black Dahlia, with its uncanny parallels between that famous crime and his mother's death.

Ellroy hops around in time like a junkie hoping to ward off his jones. The reader peeks into his life just as Ellroy himself peeked into windows in L.A.'s Hancock Park - but we are shown only the parts of himself that Ellroy chooses to reveal.

His life has been in the pursuit of the Other, as he calls her - the woman who would forgive him his sins, who would know his heart and his soul in ways he fantasized. Each of a series of women seems at first to be the Other. He works them into his books, idealizing them beyond attainability. His understanding of himself and of women is pure adolescent fantasy projection. A basic tenet of romanticism is that the love of a good woman will fix whatever is wrong with a man. (I can hear women howling over that).

How can Ellroy tell this story and still tell this story- How can he say he's learned his life story's lesson when he's still committing the same self-delusions- His ideas of truth are all about finding ways to say things that at the moment he believes might sound like truth, at least enough to get him what he wants at that moment: a woman, a compliment, permission to continue the fantasy.

This is a memoir in the vein of Charles Bukowski and Richard Meltzer. It's blunt-force trauma using language. To say that Ellroy's prose is fractured or fragmented is like saying that an Impressionist painting is smudged and unfocused. It misses the point and describes the shadow of the thing, not the thing's substance. The words bounce around in a world where tense is fluid, where hard-consonants rule the day, where conventional definitions are tossed on their heads. He pushes his readers' limits by demanding that they enter a world created solely for the purpose of brutally truthful revelation. It is a world where the facts are backlit by an angry light.

Randy Michael Signor is a free-lance writer who lives in Seattle.