With humor, history, nostalgia, and acerbity, Didion (Political Fictions, 2001, etc.) considers the conundrums of California, her beloved home state.
Pieces of this remarkable memoir have appeared in the writer’s usual venues (e.g., the New York Review of Books), but she has crafted the connections among them so artfully that the work acquires a surprising cumulative power. Didion tells a number of stories that would not in lesser hands appear to be related: the arrival in California of her pioneer ancestors, the nasty 1993 episode involving randy adolescents who called themselves the “Spur Posse,” the fall of the aerospace industry in the 1990s, her 1948 eighth-grade graduation speech (“Our California Heritage”), the history of the state, and the death of her parents. Along the way she deals with some California novels from earlier days, Jack London’s The Valley of the Moon and Frank Norris’s The Octopus, and explores the community histories of Hollister, Irvine, and Lakewood (home of the Posse). She sees fundamental contradictions in the California dream. For one, older generations resented the arrival of the “newcomers,” who in their minds were spoiling the view. But as Didion points out, the old-timers had once done the same. More profound is her recognition that Californians, many of whom embrace the ideal of rugged individualism and reject “government interference,” nonetheless have accepted from the feds sums of money vast enough to mesmerize Midas. Water-management programs have been especially costly, but tax breaks for all sorts of other industries and enterprises have greatly enriched some in the state (railroad magnates, housing developers, defense contractors) while most everyone else battles for scraps beneath the table. Most affecting are her horrifying portrait of Lakewood as a community devoted to high-school sports at the expense of scholarship and her wrenching accounts of the deaths of her father and mother.
Demonstrates how very thin is the gilt on the Golden State.