Goin' back to Cali 

A review of Where I Was From

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The high queen of literary journalism strikes 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 her eloquent, and often oblique, prose remains in form, Didion's varied interests have honed in on a place. That place is California, whose vicissitudes she's been chronicling since the inception of her career in the early 1960s.

Didion's justly deified nonfiction has included compilations of essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, among others. Unlike her previous collections, Where I Was From offers the illusion of an original, coherent narrative, which it never exactly delivers. Original yes, coherent ... maybe. But that's OK, because even if it doesn't flow like the Sacramento River, Didion's writing is as sharp and elegiac as ever.

Though she's lived in New York for more than a decade, Didion hails from a Sacramento family that settled the state's central valley. Like Philip Roth forever returning to his native Newark, Didion sees in Sacramento the sadness of a shifting people forever ensnared in its own mythology.

Where I Was From includes excerpts from lesser known California histories, as well as novels like Frank Norris's The Octopus and some harrowing journals of early California settlers. One passage she returns to 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 abandonment -- a place where the scramble for survival manifests in ways beyond literary metaphor.

The most compelling illustration is culled from Didion's account of the famously forgotten high-school sex marauders known as the Spur Posse. These coddled sons of working-class Lakewood were the toast of the Rikki Lake talk-show circuit for much of 1993 due to their 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 the community of Lakewood and Long Beach where generations of working-class homeowners flowered from the seemingly boundless teat of military contractor McDonnell Douglas.

"What does it cost to create and maintain a false ownership class?" Didion asks in her expos of Southern California's Levittowns, where, in 1991 and 1992, 21,000 were laid off from McDonnell Douglas alone and, a year later, only 16 percent of them had found work. The question she fails to ask is: What's the cost of not maintaining this class? (Ask your neighborhood Wal-Mart "associate.")

It's very easy and presumably tempting for an older writer to sentimentalize the lost Sacramento of her youth. Certainly, Where I Was From is laced with a nostalgia that flirts with the mawkish, but Didion, 69, is too much of a pro to go there.

Rather, she finds that California keeps singing the same old song: Abandonment of yeoman farming led to one generation's disillusionment, the death of shipbuilding another. The high-tech bubble is not mentioned, but it aptly applies.

Where I Was From ends with a brief chronicle of the ascendancy of California's prison system as a growth economy. How this disturbing industry self-destructs will be a fascinating story. Sadly, this national treasure probably won't be around to tell it.

-- John Dicker


Where I Was From

by Joan Didion

(Alfred A. Knopf: New York)



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