Some people do binge watching. I do binge reading. Most recently I have been gorging on Joan Didion, the remarkable personal essayist as fine in her way as George Orwell or E.B. White. A lukewarm review of a new biography of Didion set me off. I concluded I didn’t need to read the biography, but did need to go back and read her essays again. I was particularly excited to learn I has missed one of her non-fiction books, “Where I Was From,” published in 2003.
While I waited for my copy of it to come in the mail, I returned to pieces from “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” “The White Album,” and “Political Fictions.” I was surprised by two things, first how well pieces that ought to have dated long ago held up. Second, how central a character California is in so much of her work.
I was not surprised by how well Didion writes, which help explains why her take on The Reagan White House, Bush vs. Dukakis, a recording session by The Doors or the febrile mood of Los Angeles at the time of the Manson family murders still have the power to grab the reader. In part this is also because of how personal her essays are. Though many obviously began as magazine journalism assignments, their subject was never just the subject itself but what Didion made of it.
In this Didion was similar to her New Journalism contemporaries like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Gay Talese. But Didion differs from those in combining a hypersensitivity to mood, a kind of spooky intuition, with an extremely sharp, tough-mindedness that refuses to let any falsehood, contradiction or hypocrisy escape undetected or unscathed.
I rushed to get “Where I Was From” because the reviewer called it a key book for understanding Didion, and he was right. Didion was in her late sixties when it appeared and, as people that age do, she was returning to her roots which were old, though depleted, money in Sacramento, and a family saga stretching back to wagon trains heading for the promised land of Gold Rush California.
She discusses the California, and by implication American, myths she was brought up on, and spends much of the book showing how, as an adult, she slowly came to realize that much of this received wisdom was bunk. The hearty pioneers were actually often drifters, grifters and lost souls. Rugged libertarian individualists were often beneficiaries of gigantic economic engineering projects that dwarfed any Soviet five-year plan. Subsidized railroads, public sector dams, aqueducts, and rerouted rivers on a pharaonic scale were the underpinnings of private prosperity, for those adept at gaming the system like the Bohemian Club cabal.
She also shows how the mid-twentieth century boom was built on another vast government spending spree – aerospace and defense. When the Cold War tide went out, the faux middle class of defense plant workers it created was left high and dry. In the years between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, southern California lost 800,000 well-paid jobs. By 2000, the Golden State was the poorest in the nation by some measures. Its once great school system was in tatters. The great landowners had sold off their birthright to build tacky suburbs. Instead of competing to host the next aerospace plant, many towns were now vying to attract a new prison, of which the state now had dozens. A growth industry.
Didion offers the evidence of several earlier writers who took the measure of the California delusion – Frank Norris and Jack London, and returns to her own first novel, “Run River,” from 40 years earlier. She now scorns it for its “false nostalgia” for a California that never existed. She also offers up several object lessons or symbolic cases that are meant sum up aspects of the California character. She finds the state has a disturbing history of using commitment to mental hospitals to dispense with troublemakers, eccentrics or annoying relatives. She finds the source of this in a Donner Party sort of pioneer heartlessness, with examples from her own ancestors. Keep moving. Don’t look back. Get through the pass before winter. Eat or be eaten.
She also offers up the cause celebre of the Spur Posse as a demonstration of a self-deluding preference for appearance over reality, or for self-aggrandizement over morality. A group of teenage boys, the sons of a suburb populated by smug workers at Northrop and McDonnell Douglas before the fall, are mediocre students but star athletes. They use their privileged position to bully their peers, demand sex from adoring girls, keep a tally of their conquests and indulge in extortion, theft and pranks including a pipe bomb to intimidate critics. Several eventually wind up charged with a long string of felonies. To the end their deluded parents defend their amoral sons as fun-loving scamps.
In her tart, allusive, sidelong, subtle, magical way Didion makes this tale of the decline of the West unforgettable, and perhaps inevitable since California was founded on illusion. She quotes a distinguished native son, Josiah Royce, who in 1886 described the pioneers as “a homeless generation of selfish wanderers…who have left their home and families…and have sought safety from their old vexatious duties in a golden paradise.”
In the end Didion loops back to her own family. She began with those who came to California 150 years earlier and ends with the death of her parents and the sunset of a dream. Her father was a Micawberesque figure who always thought something would turn up, a depressive who gambled to relax and whose solution to “any moment when emotion seemed likely to surface” was “this calls for a drink.”
Her mother dodged sentiment by hanging up the phone. She was a master of denial who clung to the myth of the family’s membership in a pioneer landed gentry. But near the end, she could no longer deny that the California in her mind had vanished, replaced by “mile after mile of pastel subdivisions and labyrinthine exits and entrances to freeways that had not previously existed.”
California has become “all San Jose,” her mother said. This was not a compliment. Didion concludes that “there is no real way to deal with all we lose.” Especially, perhaps, our illusions. But Didion has done with this bitter truth what writers do. She has turned it into prose in this wonderful, bittersweet, sadder but wiser book.