The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion
Into the Sunset
The Last Thing He Wanted
by Joan Didion
Knopf, 227 pp. $23.00
Joan Didion is a Californian who traces her ancestry to the 1840′s wave of pioneers heading West that also included survivors of the Donner Party: people, in other words, who had endured awful struggle and unspeakable privation and gone on to transform raw nature into a civilized culture. She came of age in the Sacramento Valley in the 1950′s, a period which she at one time seemed to believe still held certain truths self-evident. At least, that is what was suggested by the title of her first collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), which documented the seismic scarring produced by a restless people in constant search of new values. Many of those essays had a decidedly elegiac tone, as did her first novel, Run River (1963), in which the spiritual deficiencies of contemporary Californians turn out to be more perilous to the values of family and tradition than even the mortal dangers the Donner Party faced in its near-doomed trek across the Sierra Nevada.
Since the 1960′s Didion’s literary output has been sparse—two essay collections; two extended, book-length essays on El Salvador and Miami; and two novels—but invariably well-received. Critics point to her ear for dialogue, which betrays an indebtedness to Hollywood (she is also a screenwriter), her gift for vivid characterization, and her distinctive voice. These qualities are all very much in evidence in this new novel, her first since 1984. In voice alone, The Last Thing He Wanted spans a range that includes the terse talk of hard-boiled criminals, government bureaucratese, the patter of wheeler-dealers, and the argot of the spoiled children of Hollywood producers. In form, it continues a march away from traditional narrative already signaled by Didion’s second novel, Play It As It Lays (1970). And, like much of Didion’s work, early and late, it also reflects her dismissive attitude toward contemporary American liberal democracy, its institutions, and its mores.
The story concerns Elena McMahon, a journalist covering the 1984 political campaign who, like many Didion heroines, becomes an unwitting participant in the events she is nominally observing. Walking off her job in California, basically because she has not eaten in twenty-eight hours, Elena flies to Florida, home of her widowed father. Now old and alcoholic and about to die, he is the kind of inveterate operator who is always trying to strike it rich in troubled, war-torn regions, a man who “can still line up some jeeps in Shreveport, . . . can still handle the midnight call from the fellow who needs a couple or three hundred Savage automatic rifles with telescopic sights.”
When her father falls ill and has to be hospitalized, Elena becomes inadvertently involved in completing the latest of his deals, the deal to end all deals: transporting a shipment of arms to Nicaraguan contras (“certain actions . . . in 1984 in the matter of what later became known as the lethal, as opposed to the humanitarian, resupply”). In a rapid succession of short scenes, she sinks deeper and deeper into trouble, all the while surrounded by men who deal in covert operations and know how to circumvent normal border procedures. And yet, as the pages turn and the perils inexorably quicken, we also feel in our bones that in the end Elena will escape her fix and get both her million dollars and her man.
The Last Thing He Wanted does not, however, possess a coherent plot structure of the kind that may be implied by this brief summary. In fact, Didion deliberately seeks to disabuse her readers of any expectations of coherence, fictional or otherwise. As in her previous novel, Democracy (1984), the narrator of The Last Thing He Wanted flip-flops back and forth in time, constantly disclaims authorial omniscience, and makes frequent self-conscious references to the construction of the story before us.
By thus pointing to the machinery of her work (rather like Toto snatching away the curtain and exposing the Wizard of Oz), Didion means not only to deprive us of the reassuring comforts of traditional realist fiction, with its emphasis on plot and consistent point of view, on heroes and villains, but to remind us through form itself that all is not right with the world, that something is rotten at the core—or rather that there is no core, that “democracy” itself is a mystification masking criminal purposes. America in this novel, awash with government bureaucrats, congressional staffers, and embassy officials, no longer subscribes to a coherent “plot,” and there are definitely no good guys or bad guys, only a kind of Nietzschean struggle for power and position. What counts is information and the deal of the moment; even our “heroine” Elena is a pretext rather than a player, “caught in the pipeline, swept into the conduits.”
In her work, Didion has long since stopped short of moralizing about the decay she has made a specialty of chronicling. That, after all, would be to suggest an old-fashioned belief in a center that has somehow been lost and that no longer holds. Instead, over the decades the mournful tone of her earlier fiction and essays has increasingly transformed itself into a thoroughgoing cynicism or even nihilism—which looks close enough to simple anti-Americanism to ensure the sort of rapturous attention her new novel is already receiving.
But something else is going on here as well. At a certain point, this resolutely postmodernist work turns into a traditional romance-cum-thriller. Suddenly, three-quarters of the way through, Elena “knows” she is being set up for something bigger than the arms deal she has brokered on behalf of her father:
Elena McMahon was still on the island because of what she had known since the instant she read in the Miami Herald that her father had been certified dead in South Kendall on the same day the passport with her photograph on it was supposed to have been issued in Miami. What she had known since that instant was this:
Somebody out there was playing a different game, doing a different deal.
Not her father’s deal.
A deal her father had not known about.
Although the moment when a character “knows” the score is a conceit that thrillers resort to all the time, from everything we have learned of Elena, an insight of this nature would be totally out of character. Yet Didion, spurner of novelistic conventions, proceeds in the last quarter of the novel to embroil Elena in a conventional assassination plot—and, too, in an affair of the heart with a character bearing the weird name of Treat Morrison.
Treat is a diplomat, a can-do guy who, unlike Elena, makes a point of staying on top of things (“for Treat Morrison, an intervention [is] when you run out of options you can still get your people to the airport”). Like Jack Lovett in Democracy, the fixer in what Didion portrayed as our squalid disentanglement from Vietnam, Treat is a loner, a man “who projected nothing so much as an extreme, even resistant loneliness.” In these respects, he also emerges as a reincarnation of John Wayne, the iconic figure lovingly eulogized by Didion in a 1965 essay included in Slouching Towards Bethlehem.
Subtitled “A Love Song,” that essay revealed the imagined landscape that may be Didion’s true reference point: when all is said and done, if there is a real center of things, its name is Hollywood. And so readers put off by the deconstructed literary smoke and mirrors of The Last Thing He Wanted can always wait for the reconstructed movie version, at the end of which, no matter what the fate of our American “democracy,” they will no doubt be relieved to see Treat and Elena riding off together into the sunset.