by John Dicker

The high queen of literary journalism has struck again with what smells like a memoir, but proves to be the sort of rambling medley of reportage, social and personal history that only Joan Didion could pull off.

While Didion's eloquent, and often infuriatingly oblique prose is in full effect, her divergent interests have honed in on place. That place is California, whose vicissitudes she has chronicled since the start of her career in the early 1960s.

Where I Was From includes many a snippet from forgotten California histories, as well as journals of settlers struggling over the Rockies and into the Promised Land. One chilling passage comes from the letter of a surviving child of the Donner Party: "Remember, never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can."

This is Didion's California, a land less inclined toward solipsism than the gusto of booms, busts and abandonments -- a place where the scramble for survival manifests in ways beyond a convenient metaphor.

The most compelling illustration is culled from her New Yorker piece on the famously forgotten high school sex marauders known as the Spur Posse. These celebrated sons of working class Lakewood were the toast of the Ricki Lake talk show circuit for much of 1993 due to their point-system sex competitions with disturbingly young girls. But Didion doesn't delve into the sexual politics assumed to be at the heart of that imbroglio. Rather she reports on their communities, where generations of working class homeowners flowered from the seemingly boundless teat of military contractor McDonnell Douglas.

"What does it cost to create and maintain a false ownership class?" the author asks in her expos & eacute; on these Levittowns of Southern California -- where, in 1991 and 1992, 21,000 were laid off from McDonnell Douglas alone and, a year later, only 16 percent had found work. Ultimately, Didion finds California still singing the same sad song. The abandonment of yeoman farming led to one generation's disillusionment, the death of shipbuilding another.

Where I Was From concludes with a brief chronicle of the ascendancy of California's prison boom and the emergence of the corrections officers union as the most powerful lobby in the state. When and how this industry self-destructs will be a fascinating story. Sadly, this national treasure probably won't be alive to cover it.

Publication date: 10/02/03

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