Better known for her serious writing (Martyrs’ Crossing, 2001, etc.), Wilentz takes wicked, witty tear through the Left Coast.
When her husband’s job took the family to Los Angeles, the New Jersey–born, longtime Manhattan resident felt like an alien. How do you adjust, exactly, to finding Nicole Kidman in your yoga class? For all its glitter, California in 2003 seemed much like the Third World. The state was in massive debt, and a rumored recall election was about to shake up the government. Wilentz chronicles her attempts to set down roots in a state where every man is tan and “possibly spiritually inclined.” She reports, deadpan, on the controversies in L.A. over groundcover: Grow a grass lawn, like they have back East? Or go for cactus and rocks? She sends her sons to school with “comfort bags,” each containing a toothbrush, stuffed animal and picture of the family, to be on hand in case of earthquake. These well-chosen autobiographical vignettes frame the author’s central interest: Schwarzenegger. When she first heard that the bodybuilder/movie star was considering a run for governor, Wilentz thought it was the punchline to a joke, “but the joke about California is that the joke about California is not a joke.” The recall election itself seemed surreal. Schwarzenegger couldn’t actually become governor, could he? After all, there were nude pictures of him on the Internet. Wilentz lambastes the campaign as a charade. Schwarzenegger was all spin, no substance, she writes; he claimed to be for the little guy, when obviously he was devoted to the status quo. Her breezy, sardonic style fails her only when she rehearses Schwazenegger’s well-known history of sexism. She seems content to tell us what we already know (that he was spouting misogynistic gibberish to the press until a few months before he declared his gubernatorial candidacy; that in a 1977 interview, he claimed to have gang-banged a black woman) without providing fresh analysis.
Weaker than, though akin to, Didion.