Review: The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion Print

didion(San Diego Union-Tribune September 19, 1996)

A Postmodern Disaster

What's a reader to do when one-bewildered-third of his way through Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted, a novel ostensibly about arms-smuggling to the Contras in 1984, the story's mercurial narrator announces she has "lost patience . . . with the conventions of the craft (i.e., novel writing), with exposition, with transitions, with the development and revelation of `character' "? A reader can a) persevere, b) marvel at the artistic feat of salvaging some intrigue from the wreck of obscurity, or c) lose sympathy with Didion's characters, who appear to be no more than sacrificial pork penned in the cold-war sty of Ronald Reagan-led misadventure in Central America. Can-do kinds of readers can do all three: persevere, marvel and lose touch. Persevering, we meet Elena McMahon, a reporter for The Washington Post and a well-to-do divorced mother of a disconsolate grown daughter.

One day she quits reporting on the campaign of an unnamed presidential candidate and flies to Miami to visit her ailing father, a small-time arms-dealer. As a favor, Elena escorts (knowingly or not is unclear) a shipment of weapons to Honduras, but misses her payoff.

Stranded, she must rely for her rescue on the disenchanting Trent Morrison, more CIA operative than attache, whose best intentions are saved for clandestine Pyrrhic victories. With the CIA on board, Elena and her father must reach unseemly ends that are predictable in ways the writing is not. I marveled at the historical fabric of memory and memory loss woven by Didion's narrator, a reporter who has been investigating this case for 10 years.

She writes rarely from experience, but more from interview and hearsay coupled with a rhetorical flair for mimicking the soullessness of the declassified documents she consults—written, of course, to cast too-little light on Elena's dark exit. The narrator has mastered obscurantism, the use of deliberately vague and oblique language, which she wields to emphasize the mystifying record of Elena's involvement rather than to understand it.

Indeed, the bureaucratese of the cover-up, spoken and written, may be the true antagonist here. Didion's journalistic newspeak is very close to the equivocations that flowed from Oliver North in the Iran-Contra hearings, a style of prevarication the gun-runners themselves labeled "plausible deniability." Such elliptical analysis rings through this novel like bells on Christmas Eve.

"I had no particular reason to doubt this, but neither did I have any particular reason to believe it."

Or, "Other people in Washington . . . said that the flights (to Honduras) could not be occurring, or could only be occurring, if indeed they were occurring, outside the range of possible knowledge." But despite the teller's technique, my sympathy remained untouched: Elena is just too much victim.

I never understood how her lousy marriage and ungrateful daughter and mafioso father compel her to do his bidding so easily, so stupidly.

That Elena believes Morrison's gift of a false passport and a Washington phone number will magically get her out suggests how chasmal the gap is between her instincts and those—including her father, perhaps—who have exploited her. Which is Didion's point: Such colossal ignorance of the smugglers' underworld is typical of Americans, particularly next-of-kin who aren't supposed to know.

Yet the impotence of Didion's characters is extreme—including the storyteller, who, in the hands of a less clever novelist, might have wrung out a few drops of enlightenment.

No one, sadly, will leave this book any wiser.

So, back to persevering.