Joan Didion’s passing leaves a gaping hole in California letters

‘Almost every piece she wrote is an autopsy of the mentalities that have shaped American culture’

By Steve Wasserman

Special to The Examiner

I met Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in the late 1970s when I left Berkeley for the Edenic pastures of Los Angeles and a job helping to edit the Los Angeles Times opinion section. We became friends and delighted in seeing one another at the archipelago of Hollywood parties, eager to share the higher gossip of movies and books.

I greatly admired them, as they were perfect magicians managing to juggle both the precincts of snobbish Manhattan and cutthroat Hollywood. They were a Teflon couple, nothing bad stuck to them; they were wanted on both coasts. Joan was the introvert, almost monastic in her quietude where John was voluble, of Irish descent from Hartford, Conn. Joan hailed from Sacramento and was a descendant of flinty pioneers who had come to California with the Donner Party.

Then, in the early 1980s, I went East to seek my fortune in the precincts of book publishing. They too had forsaken Hollywood for the Upper East Side. Most Sundays they had breakfast together at The Carlyle hotel. From time to time, I joined them for a repast of talk about the issues and personalities of the day. They were ever fierce and unsentimental in their judgments and pronouncements. There was a lot of cackling amid the croissants.

A decade and a half passed and then one sweltering day in August, I was called back to L.A. to take the helm of the paper’s Sunday Book Review. I wondered what advice Joan might have for me as I prepared to return to my old paper and our former hometown. We went to dinner at the eatery she favored, Elio’s on the Upper East Side. Joan gripped my forearm with steel in her fingers, and said: “Just review the good books.” I laughed, and she said, “No, I mean something quite specific: Just because a writer lives in zip code 90210 doesn’t mean you have to pay attention. If the work is good, of course, but if it’s second-rate, or worse, don’t give it the time of day. To do otherwise is a formula for mediocrity, for the provincialization of the Review.”

Joan’s death at age 87 leaves a gaping hole in the landscape of California letters. There really was no one like her. She was, in a way, the least Californian of our state’s writers, if by “Californian” we mean ever-sunny, full of optimism, wed to the conceit that history is weightless. Didion cast an unsparing eye on everything she examined. Her aesthetic, perhaps shaped as much by her early stint as a writer for William F. Buckley Jr.’s conservative National Review as it was by the dessiccated temperament of her Yankee forebears, was chilly, unforgiving, hard. She reminded one nothing so much as Chauncey Gardiner, the protagonist of Jerzy Kosiński’s “Being There,” who liked “to watch.”

Famously, while reporting for the Saturday Evening Post, she found herself at a pad in Haight-Ashbury as all around her hippies dropped acid, and a tab was given to a toddler. Arguably, Didion should have called 911. She did not, instead reveling in the “material” that was being given to her. She was always the consummate spectator, refusing to taint her stories with any personal intervention.

And yet, and yet. For all her enviable craftsmanship and her gimlet eye, Joan’s work often risked ethical failure. She was so good that often her readers didn’t tumble to the sleight-of-hand that was baked into the DNA of her peerless sentences. The pixie dust she cast on the subjects she covered was dazzling, so much so that you often found yourself succumbing to the spell of her style, much as a genius cinematographer stacks the deck by shooting wonderfully and compellingly composed pictures. When the movie ends, you find yourself unable to look at the world — at least for a time — in any other way. Joan’s style was pitch-perfect. The framing was always impeccable and her skill so good that you tended not even to notice that she’d had her thumb on the scale. She often mistook her own sensibility for a general condition. The Wall Street Journal got it right when a review of her book on the atrocities of El Salvador was headlined: “A Migraine in Search of a Revolution.”

Joan was something of a forensic writer, looking askance at the foibles of people, unrivaled in her understanding of the use and abuse of the English language. No one was better at deconstructing the syntax of power inherent in bureaucratic idiom. She understood with exemplary acuity how entire ideologies are concealed in the warp and woof of everyday language. She knew the devil was in the details. Almost every piece she wrote is an autopsy of the mentalities that have shaped American culture. Unusual for a writer who started out as a supporter of Barry Goldwater, Didion drifted leftward, always wanting, as she once remarked admiringly of former Ramparts editor Robert Scheer’s journalism, to know who does the screwing and who gets screwed.

Steve Wasserman, former editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, is publisher of Heyday, an independent nonprofit publisher founded in 1974 in Berkeley.

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