In the 1980s and 1990s, even as successive administrations hailed “morning in America” and “a thousand points of light,” Joan Didion brought her brilliant and impeccably stylish prose to bear on the darker truths of American empire. Gathered here for the first time in this second volume of Library of America’s definitive edition are her masterful novels and nonfiction from this period, five complete book-length works.
“Terror,” Didion writes in Salvador (1983) at the height of that country’s civil war, “is the given of the place. . . . Bodies turn up in the brush of vacant lots, in the garbage thrown down ravines in the richest districts, in public rest rooms, in bus stations.” Her powerful and incisive reporting measures the perverse distance between such abstractions as Communism, human rights, and democracy in Central America and the senseless violence she is witness to.
Often considered Didion’s finest novel, Democracy (1984) tells a story of Inez Victor, daughter of an old money Honolulu dynasty, glamorous wife of a prominent politician, and sometime lover of a hardboiled intelligence officer, who is roused from a listless life of drinking and photo opportunities by her father’s murderous insanity and her daughter’s heroin addiction. Into this mix steps a narrator, “Joan Didion,” who pieces Inez’s story together with a sharp and often comic eye.
More than an urban portrait, Miami (1987) is a deep dive into the violent heart of the Magic City’s unwritten history. The “underwater narratives” Didion pursues take her not only through diverse and vibrant neighborhoods but into the clandestine operations and internecine rivalries of organized crime bosses, cocaine traffickers, CIA operatives, exiled Cuban counterrevolutionaries, and White House insiders.
The essays in After Henry (1992) capture the zeitgeist of the 1980s and early ’90s as surely as Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album did for the 1960s and ’70s. Alongside signature reflections on life in California, including a trenchant account of the scourge of wildfires, are provocative examinations of the 1988 presidential campaign and an in-depth look at New York City and the notorious case of the Central Park Five.
The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) turns Didion’s fascination with the Iran–Contra affair into a tense, intricately plotted, inimitably atmospheric thriller. In the middle of the 1984 presidential campaign, Elena McMahon leaves her job as a reporter for The Washington Post to care for her ailing but secretive father––only to find herself on a late-night flight to Costa Rica, bound for a morally compromised world “on the far frontiers of the Monroe Doctrine,” full of spies, ideologues, mercenaries, and assassins.
David L. Ulin, editor, is the former book editor and book critic of the Los Angeles Times. A 2015 Guggenheim Fellow, he is the author or editor of a dozen books, including Sidewalking: Coming to Terms with Los Angeles, Labyrinth, and The Lost Art of Reading: Books and Resistance in a Troubled Time. For Library of America he has also edited Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology.