PARIS—A few years before I met her in an elevator in San Salvador, Joan Didion wrote a novel set in Central America. She’d been inspired by a fever-plagued trip to Colombia, which is actually a bit South of Central. And when the novel, A Book of Common Prayer, came out in 1977, a reporter for the New York Times noticed “props and cue cards” around Didion’s home office in Malibu: “postcards from Colombia, a newspaper photo of a janitor mopping up blood in a Caribbean hotel, books on tropical foliage and tropical medicine and a Viasa Airlines schedule with ‘Maracaibo-Paris’ circled in blue.” (Joan and her husband, the author John Gregory Dunne, loved Paris, especially the Bristol Hotel on the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which had the distinction of an indoor pool and tanning terrace on the top floor.)
There was also a map of Central America on which Joan had written notes to remind her of the effects she was looking for in the novel. Among them was the word “iridescent.” “I wanted to do a deceptive surface that appeared to be one thing and turned color as you looked through it,” she told the Times.
But when Didion was in the home stretch of Common Prayer she left behind the house in Malibu overlooking the sea, and the map, and the cue cards, and retreated to her mother’s home in Sacramento, which is where she grew up. “It’s very easy for me to work there,” she told the interviewer. “I’m not required to lead a real life. I’m like a child in my parents’ house.” Her room was “sort of a carnation-pink, and the vines and trees have grown up over the windows,” she said. “It’s exactly like a cave. It’s a very safe place.”
Certainly it was very far from the Central America she imagined in Common Prayer, or that she and John and I traveled in five years later after we met in the elevator. That was part of a world they liked to call “Greene-land,” after the morally ambiguous, menacing, seductive settings for Graham Greene’s classic novels in Vietnam, Africa, Haiti and Cuba. But Sacramento, that was home. That was where Joan was from.
It was more than 25 years after A Book of Common Prayer that Joan published a nonfiction book looking at the iridescence of all she thought she knew about Sacramento, and about California.
Here in a sun-filled room in Paris in an apartment I have not left for any reason for a week, and only a handful of times, for food, over the last month, I pulled several of Joan’s books off the shelf. I wanted to learn again from her meticulous observation of detail, character, and setting, and her great, often surprising sense of irony.
There were the classic essays of Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, which were the first books by Joan Didion I ever read, long before I introduced myself at the Camino Real Hotel in 1982, when she was reporting the book that became Salvador. And there were the uncorrected proofs of several books she wrote after that which, for one reason or another, she would have her publisher send to me.
One of them from 1996, her novel The Last Thing He Wanted, has a broken spine and a lot of marginalia. The narrative overlapped with some of my own experiences in Central America, and I guess Joan wanted to check a few things, so I read it closely and made notes. One of the passages I underlined:
“History’s rough draft.
We used to say.
When we still believed that history merited a second look.”
Another I highlighted:
“I recently sat at dinner in Washington next to a reporter who covered the ground in question. After a few glasses of wine he turned to me, lowered his voice, and said about this experience that nothing that had happened to him since, including the birth of his children and assignment to several more overt parts of the world, had made him feel so alive as waking up on that particular ground any day in that particular period.”
Finally, the book I picked up to read again from uncorrected cover to cover was Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s exploration of California’s past tense, and her last goodbye to the carnation-pink safety of Sacramento as she had thought she knew it.
“A good deal about California does not, on its own terms, add up,” Joan writes, as she tries to come to terms with the state’s often perverse exceptionalism.
The first part of the book is an exploration of her family’s attachment to the legendary spirit of their forebears, pioneers who traveled overland to California in the 1840s and 1850s. Joan had been taught she was “a child of the crossing,” a story associated with extraordinary hardship. The grim fate of the Donner Party snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the winter of 1846-47 was only one example. “Children who died of cholera got buried on the trail. Women who believed they could keep some token of their mother’s house (the rosewood chest, the flat silver) learned to jettison memory and keep moving. Sentiment, like grief and dissent, cost time. A hesitation, a moment spent looking back, and the grail was forfeited”—the grail being the prize of land and life in California, and, finally, the ability to reinvent yourself on your own terms, perhaps many times over.
But this was not Hollywood or Malibu, which play little part in this book. The homes in Sacramento where Joan felt so safe while finishing her novels about Greene-land cultivated patinas on unpolished silver and brass as if that passed for history. “This predilection for the ‘old’ extended into all areas of domestic life: dried flowers were seen to have a more subtle charm than fresh, print should be faded, rugs worn, wallpaper streaked by the sun. Our highest moment in this area was the acquisition, in 1951, of a house in Sacramento in which the curtains on the stairs had not been changed since 1907. These curtains, which were of unlined (and faded, naturally) gold silk organza, hung almost two stories, billowed iridescent with every breath of air, and, if touched, crumbled.”
Didionesque repetition is hard to resist.
Much of the middle of Where I Was From is about a place Joan Didion most assuredly was not from: the huge Lakewood housing development in Los Angeles built during the post-World War II early-Cold War boom when the aerospace industry in Southern California was taking off. Didion was looking at what happened after it crashed in the early 1990s, as McDonnell Douglas and other factories moved or shut down and hundreds of thousands of workers were laid off.
Today, with tens of millions of people filing for unemployment all over the United States, those chapters in Where I Was From have a resonance I hadn’t felt when they first appeared:
“The message on the marquee at Rochelle’s Restaurant and Motel and Convention Center, between Douglas and the Long Beach airport, still read, ‘Welcome Douglas Happy Hour 4-7,’ but the place was nailed shut, a door banging in the wind. ‘We’ve developed good citizens,’ [real estate magnate] Mark Taper said about Lakewood in 1969. ‘Enthusiastic owners of property. Owners of a piece of their country—a stake in the land.’ This was a sturdy but finally unsupportable ambition, sustained for forty years by good times and the good will of the federal government.” And in the early 1990s all that was gone.
A thread running through the Lakewood chapters follows the allegations against a bunch of young men accused of rape and theft who called themselves the Spur Posse. The story of abuse of women is familiar, but takes on new relevance as the #MeToo era is conjoined with a depression economy:
“When times were good and there was money to spread around, these were the towns that proved Marx wrong, that managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it. Such towns [as Lakewood] were organized around the sedative idealization of team sports, which were believed to develop ‘good citizens,’ and therefore tended to the idealization of adolescent males…
“When towns like these came on hard times, it was the same adolescent males, only recently the community’s most valued asset, who were most visibly left with nowhere to go.”
It is only in the last 23 pages of Where I Was From that Joan pulls the thread that brings the book together and back to her—where she was from—as she writes about the death of her mother “two weeks short of her ninety-first birthday” in May 2001:
“Flying to Monterey [for the funeral] I had a sharp apprehension of the many times before when I had … ‘come back,’ flown west, followed the sun, each time experiencing a lightening of spirit as the land below opened up, the checkerboards of the midwestern plains giving way to the vast empty reach between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada; then home, there, where I was from, me, California. It would be a while before I realized that ‘me’ is what we think when our parents die, even at my age, who will look out for me now, who will remember me as I was, who will know what happens to me now, where will I be from.”
Where I Was From was published in September 2003 when Joan was 68 years old. Reading it now one realizes that the elegiac tone at the end was like a premonition. In December that year, Joan and John’s daughter, Quintana, came down with a brutal strain of the flu, then toxic shock, and was put into an induced coma. I believe she was on a ventilator. One night after a visit to her in the hospital, John died suddenly in the apartment on the Upper East Side of New York, which had become where they were, and where they were from. And so began what Joan would call “the year of magical thinking.” In 2005 Quintana, only partially recovered from her first illness and then the effects of a fall, died as well. She was 39 years old.
Joan is now 85, and my wife and I talk to her often on FaceTime, as we were doing long before we were locked down here, and before she was confined to the apartment there in New York. She seems almost impossibly frail. We laugh, we reminisce, we shake our heads about the state of the nation. But as I think of the cascading tragedies she has suffered over the last 16 years, I often wonder how she can endure. After re-reading Where I Was From this week, I have a clearer idea. After all—with whatever caveats she might make, and even there on the Upper East Side—she is still a child of the crossing.
Where I Was From