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Joan Didion looks back in wonder

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 and 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 one place. That place is California, the vicissitudes of which she has already chronicled in her now-classic essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

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 it’s ever been.

Where I Was From includes many a snippet from forgotten California histories, as well as some rather 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 toward the gusto of booms, busts and abandonments—a place where the scramble for survival manifests in ways beyond convenient metaphor.

Though she’s been living in New York City for over a decade, Didion hails from a Sacramento family that settled the state’s Central Valley. Like James 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 cites a pervasive contempt for the federal government—on the part of small farmers, business owners and blue-collar aristocrats—coexisting with an abject dependency on subsidized industries, from the railroad to agriculture and military contracting.

A similar California contradiction informs the perennial sense that the state isn’t what it used to be, that its perceived demise is owing to the constant presence of outsiders, ranging from gold rushers to the Okies of Grapes of Wrath fame to Mexican migrant workers. Didion’s most compelling illustration of what’s gone wrong in her home state 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 toast of the Rikki Lake talk show circuit for much of 1993 due to their point-system sex competitions with disturbingly young girls. Didion doesn’t delve into the sexual politics assumed to be at the heart of the imbroglio; rather, she reports on their communities, where generations of well-paid, working-class homeowners suckled at the seemingly inexhaustible teat of military contractor McDonnell Douglas. Until, that is, the contracts dried up.

“What does it cost to create and maintain a false ownership class?” Didion asks this question again and again in her exposé of these Levittowns of Southern California, where, in 1991 and 1992, 21,000 workers 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 it’s about ideas in that she uses novels and memoirs of California’s settling years as a launching pad for her own meaty diversions. The tone of mournful exasperation would be difficult to take if not for the abundance of evidence she presents from her own reporting, historical sources and the novels of Frank Norris and Jack London, among others. Simmered down, it’s a none-too-flattering assessment of her homeland, of a people hopelessly blind to their own contradictions, forever chasing the tale of the next boom while aggressively scapegoating for the failure of the last one. And yet Didion makes what could easily have been a cranky harangue seem both graceful and almost obvious. Like many virtuosos, she makes the whole effort look easy.

It’s presumably quite tempting for an older writer 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. Whatever sentimentality there is here is for the lost California of her imagination, the one she can’t quite accept the way she did 40 years ago.

Ultimately, Didion finds her California still singing its same sad songs: The abandonment of yeoman farming led to one generation’s disillusionment, the death of shipbuilding another. Didion doesn’t include the high-tech bubble of the ’90s, but it’s certainly apt. Where I Was From concludes with a brief chronicle of the prison-industry boom in California and the emergence of the corrections officers’ union as the most powerful lobby in state politics. When and how this disturbing industry eventually self-destructs will be a fascinating and typically Californian story. Here’s hoping Didion will still be around to cover it.

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