In A Book of Common Prayer, the daughter of Charlotte Douglas has disappeared and is wanted by the police for a political bombing. In Democracy, Inez Victor’s daughter is a heroin addict and her father, Inez’s, in an onset of lunacy has killed her sister and another person. She has also had cancer. In The Last Thing He Wanted, Elena McMahon has lost her mother and in walking out on her rich husband has lost the affection of her daughter. The interior in which the women live is a sort of cocoon of melancholy, but their restlessness is modern and cannot be expressed like that of a country wife sighing at the moonlight as it hits the silence on the front porch. Maria Wyeth sleeps by her pool when she is not driving the LA freeways all night, stopping only for a Coke at a filling station. But she is driving a Corvette. The women have credit cards, bank drafts, a Hermès handbag, or a large emerald ring. In the heart of darkness men fall in love with them, bereft and down-hearted as they are. The sheen of glamour is useful to give entrance to the melancholy adulteries and to the plot of costly, wild travels and also, in some cases, to politics which come out of the Oval Office or some room in the White House basement and turn up on the runway in Saigon or Costa Rica.
A Book of Common Prayer is a daring title, a risk, even, some would name a presumption. Perhaps the title is meant to bring to mind: Have mercy on us in the hour of our death…Prega per noi. Charlotte Douglas is wandering the earth by air, aimlessly hoping to run into her daughter, Marin, “who at eighteen had been observed with her four best friends detonating a crude pipe bomb in the lobby of the Transamerica Building at 6:30 A.M., hijacking a P.S.A. L-1011 at San Francisco Airport and landing in Wendover, Utah, where they burned it in time for the story to interrupt the network news and disappeared.” Charlotte Douglas goes to a miserable, corrupt little place called Boca Grande, an ungoverned and ungovernable country near Caracas. Her plane took her there with the blinkered idea that her daughter must be somewhere—and why not Boca Grande? Charlotte is killed by some machine gun-toting activist in the almost weekly coups and countercoups. And meanwhile, Marin, the Berkeley Tupamaro, is actually in Buffalo. A Book of Common Prayer is an odd and most unusual study of secular violence and in the case of the wandering mother, Charlotte Douglas, a sort of heathen inanition. Unable to think on the appalling plight of her daughter, Charlotte fills her mind with memories of Marin happy at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, devouring coconut ice under “the thousand trunks of the Great Banyan at the Calcutta Botanical Garden.”
Democracy: Washington, Honolulu, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, Jakarta are along the road in this novel of outlandish ambition, justified and honored by the scope, the subtlety, the agenda, as they call it. The time is 1975, aftermath of Vietnam still in the air, and we go back to the way of setting the scene, a sort of computer lyricism:
I would skim the stories on policy and fix instead on details: the cost of a visa to leave Cambodia in the weeks before Phnom Penh closed was five hundred dollars American. The colors of the landing lights for the helicopters on the roof of the American embassy in Saigon were red, white, and blue. The code names for the American evacuations of Cambodia and Vietnam respectively were EAGLE PULL and FREQUENT WIND. The amount of cash burned in the courtyard of the DAO in Saigon before the last helicopter left was three-and-a-half million dollars American and eighty-five million piastres. The code name for this operation was MONEY BURN. The number of Vietnamese soldiers who managed to get aboard the last American 727 to leave Da Nang was three hundred and thirty. The number of Vietnamese soldiers to drop from the wheel wells of the 727 was one. The 727 was operated by World Airways. The name of the pilot was Ken Healy.
One of the leading characters in the novel, Jack Lovett, is in love with Inez Victor, who is married to Harry Victor, a member of the United States Senate and a one-time candidate for president, easy to believe since it is the dream of everyone who has ever had a term in the state legislature of whatever state. Lovett is perhaps CIA, but not a villain, instead a realist who can say, “A Laotian village indicated on one map and omitted on another suggested not a reconnaissance oversight but a population annihilated…. Asia was ten thousand tanks here, three hundred Phantoms there. The heart of Africa was an enrichment facility.” In the novels you do not just take an airplane from Florida to Costa Rica, you board a Lockheed L-100; and in another aside, if such it is, you learn how to lay down the AM-2 aluminum matting for a runway and whether “an eight-thousand-foot runway requires sixty thousand square yards of operational apron or only forty thousand.”
This author is a martyr of facticity and indeed such has its place in the fearless architecture of her fictions. You have a dogged concreteness of detail in an often capricious mode of presentation. The detail works upon the mind of the reader, gives an assurance, or at least a feeling, that somewhere, somehow all of this is true, fictional truth or possibility. It could have happened and Inez Victor did in fact go off to Kuala Lumpur to work in the refugee camps. And that is where we leave her after her love for Jack Lovett and after her escape from a somnambulistic time as a politician’s wife, who must be saying over and over, “Marvelous to be here,” and be “smiling at a lunch counter in Manchester, New Hampshire, her fork poised over a plate of scrambled eggs and toast.” That is, you may accept or allow the aesthetically doubtful because of the interesting force of the factual in which it is dressed.
In any case, every page of the books is hers in its peculiarities and particulars; all is handmade, or should we say, handcut, as by the knife or a lathe. Some unfriendly reviewers, knowing she has written screenplays, will call the frame or the action cinematic. But the fictions, as she has composed them, are the opposite of the communal cathedrals, or little brown churches in the vale, built by so many willing slaves in Hollywood. The first cry of exasperation from the producers, script doctors, watchful number crunchers with memories of hits and flops would be: What’s going on here? What’s it about?
If you can believe that Robert “Bud” McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser, could fly off to Iran, carrying with him a cake and a Bible in order to make a deal for the shipment of arms to the Contras, you can believe the less bizarre happenings in The Last Thing He Wanted. In this new novel, Joan Didion has placed a woman, Elena McMahon, on a plane filled with illegal arms bound for Costa Rica, or for the off-the-map border installation set up by the Americans, the Freedom Fighters. At the end of the flight she is to collect the million dollars owed her dying father, a man who does “deals.” Collect the money and fly back, or so she has been led to imagine. In the usual percussive Didion dialogue, Elena says, “Actually I’ll be going right back…. I left my car at the airport.” The pilot says, “Long-term parking I hope.” She doesn’t return and at the end of an elaborate plot is assassinated by “the man on the bluff with the ponytail”—the same sinister man who had met her at the landing strip in Costa Rica.
And there is Treat Morrison, the romantic lead you might say, who first sees Elena McMahon in the coffee shop of the Intercontinental Hotel where she was “eating, very slowly and methodically, first a bite of one and then a bite of the other, a chocolate parfait and bacon.” The odd menu is mentioned several times but does not give up its meaning beyond the fact that the parfait and bacon had bothered him, Treat Morrison. Morrison is an “ambassador at large,” Department of State, a trouble-shooter, a fixer. Like Jack Lovett in Democracy this is another love-at-first-sight matter, and, odd as that might be, not necessarily as hard to imagine as some of the more portentous occasions. The attractions are ballads: I saw her standing there and my heart stood still—something like that. Treat Morrison and Jack Lovett are attractive men of the world, at work, as the collision of romance leads them to the forlorn, needy women standing there, waiting.
In The Last Thing He Wanted, Joan Didion appears on the page, directing, filling in, serving the narration sometimes as a friend from the past or as a journalist on the case. “For the record this is me talking. You know me, or think you do.” Here she is a moralist, a student of the Contra hearings. “There are documents, more than you might think. Depositions, testimony, cable traffic, some of it not yet declassified but much in the public record.” Of course, Elena McMahon is a fiction as an unwitting conveyor of illegal arms to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but we are to remember the actual players, “all swimming together in the glare off the C-123 that fell from the sky into Nicaragua.” Among those caught in the glare was “the blonde, the shredder, the one who transposed the numbers of the account at the Credit Suisse (the account at the Credit Suisse into which the Sultan of Brunei was to transfer the ten million dollars, in case you have forgotten the minor plays)….”
The Last Thing He Wanted is a creation of high seriousness, a thriller composed with all the resources of a unique gift for imaginative literature, American literature. There remains in Didion’s far-flung landscapes a mind still rooted in the American West from which she comes. When she makes in Slouching Toward Bethlehem a visit to the venerable piles in Newport, Rhode Island, she remembers the men who built the railroad, dug the Comstock Lode for gold and silver in Virginia City, Nevada, and made a fortune in copper.
More than anyone else in the society, these men had apparently dreamed the dream and made it work. And what they did then was to build a place which…led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living. In that way the lesson of Bellevue Avenue is more seriously radical than the idea of Brook Farm…. Who could think that the building of a railroad could guarantee salvation, when there on the lawns of the men who built the railroad nothing is left but the shadow of the migrainous women, and the pony carts waiting for the long-dead children?
She is saying that Bellevue Avenue in Newport is not what the West was won for.