The high queen of literary journalism has struck again with what smells and feels like a memoir, but proves to be the sort of rambling medley of reportage, social and personal history that only Joan Didion could pull off.
While Didion’s eloquent—and often infuriatingly oblique—prose is in full effect once more, her often divergent interests have honed in on place. That place is California, whose vicissitudes she has chronicled since the start of her career in the early 1960s.
Didion’s previous and justly deified nonfiction has included compilations of essays published in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and the Saturday Evening Post. Where I Was From, however, offers the illusion of a fresh, coherent narrative, which it never quite delivers. Original indeed ... coherent, maybe. But that’s OK, because despite its digressive nature, Didion’s writing is as sharp as its ever been.
Though she has resided in New York City for over a decade, Didion hails from a Sacramento family that settled the state’s central valley. Like Joyce forever looking o’er the foam to his native Dublin, or Philip Roth returning to his postwar Newark, Didion sees in her native state the sadness of a people forever ensnared in their own mythology. For instance, she sites a pervasive contempt for the federal government in the face of an abject dependency on subsidized industries from the railroad, to agriculture and military contracting.
Where I Was From includes many a snippet from forgotten California histories, as well as harrowing journals of settlers struggling over the Rockies and into the promised land. One passage repeatedly quoted is from the letter of a surviving child of the Donner Party: “Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can.” This is Joan Didion’s California, a land less inclined toward solipsism than the gusto of booms, busts and abandonments—a place where the scramble for survival manifests in ways beyond a convenient metaphor.
The most compelling illustration of which is culled from her New Yorker piece on the famously forgotten high school sex marauders known as the Spur Posse. These celebrated sons of working-class Lakewood were the flavor of the Rikki Lake talk-show circuit for much of 1993 due to their point-system sex competitions with disturbingly young girls. But Didion doesn’t delve into the sexual politics assumed to be at the heart of that imbroglio. Rather, she reports on their communities, where generations of well-paid, working-class homeowners fed from the seemingly boundless teat of military contractor McDonnell Douglas—until the contracts dried up.
“What does it cost to create and maintain a false ownership class?” Didion asks repeatedly in her exposť on these Levittowns of Southern California where, in 1991 and 1992, 21,000 were laid off from McDonnell Douglas alone and, a year later, only 16 percent had found work. The question Didion doesn’t ask is what are the costs of not maintaining this class? (Ask your neighborhood Wal-Mart “associate.”)
Didion’s journalism is, in part, a journalism of ideas—not that the reporting is datelined exclusively from her head, but that she uses novels and memoirs of California’s settling years as a launching pad for meaty diversions. It’s very easy and presumably quite tempting for an older writer—and judging from her photo, Didion is well into the November of her years—to sentimentalize the lost Sacramento of her youth. Certainly, Where I Was From is filled with a nostalgia that flirts with the precious, but Didion is too much of a pro to go there.
Ultimately, she finds her California still singing the same sad song—the sense that the abandonment of yeoman farming led to one generation’s disillusionment, the death of shipbuilding another. Didion doesn’t include the 1990s high-tech bubble, but it aptly applies. Where I Was From concludes with a brief chronicle of the ascendancy of California’s prison boom and the emergence of the corrections officers’ union as the most powerful lobby in state politics. When and how this disturbing industry self-destructs will be a fascinating story. Sadly, this national treasure probably won’t be alive to cover it.