The Searcher | The Nation


The Searcher

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The story Didion means to tell here is the story of her own bewilderment with California and its various myths, which include the conflation of Protestant virtues like strength and will with material gain, and the various "arrival myths" she had been told. Unlike her ancestors, Didion is a writer, which means that she does have second thoughts, does equivocate and does experience "opaque bewilderment" when confronted by a story--in this instance, this story--that needs to be told, despite the difficulty she found in telling it.

About the Author

Hilton Als
Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the co-editor, with Darryl Turner, of White Noise: An Eminem Reader (...

In her review of Where I Was From for The New York Review of Books, the novelist Diane Johnson points out: "Essential to the core California mythology was the dream of Eldorado--the gold and treasure beyond the Rockies.... Underlying the arrival story...was the same explicit promise of freedom and opportunity, usually meaning freedom from persecution and freedom to become rich." But there was no West to "conquer," no dream to build on by the time Didion was a young woman, no template of thought and belief. California, like the rest of America, is confounding, its landscape littered with contradictions, above all the fiction of self-reliance. This fiction often breeds an extreme form of parochialism, an indifference to one's neighbors. "Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another," Didion writes.

The separation of north from south--and even more acutely of west from east, of the urban coast from the agricultural valleys and of both the coast and the valleys from the mountain and desert regions to their east--was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture. My mother made the trip from Sacramento to Los Angeles in 1932, to see the Olympics, and did not find reason to make it again for thirty years.

This insistence on seeing the world on preferred terms is interesting. It can and does often lead to a kind of native xenophobia--a point Didion makes in her extraordinarily well reasoned section on Lakewood, California. A "model" community built in Southern California during the postwar years, Lakewood was the fulfillment of a dream, a functioning mirage. The land, she writes, was "purchased for 8.8 million from the Montana Land Company" in 1949 by, among others, S. Mark Taper, after whom an entertainment complex in Los Angeles has been named. Like other model communities, it was designed to shut out the larger world of California, with its Mexicans and movie people and "values" that had little if anything to do with being white, middle class and preferably male.

When Didion visited Lakewood in 1993, everything it was meant to represent had eroded, largely because of another institution: the Spur Posse, a group of boys who scored "points" by sexually harassing young girls and committing other acts of random violence. The dream came to this: moments with several members of the Spur Posse captured on what passes, in the present day, for the kind of diary-keeping that Nancy Hardin Cornwall engaged in on the journey out west generations before--a television chat show.

One of the ugliest and most revelatory of the many ugly and revelatory moments that characterized the 1993 television appearances of Lakewood's Spur Posse members occurred on the Jane Whitney talk show, when a nineteen-year-old Lakewood High School graduate named Chris Albert ("Boasts He has 44 'Points' for Having Sex With Girls") turned mean with a member of the audience, a young black woman who had tried to suggest that the Spurs on view were not exhibiting what she considered native intelligence.
   "What education does she have?" Chris Albert had then demanded, and crouched forward toward the young woman, as if trying to shake himself alert. "Where do you work at?"... And then, there it was, the piton, driven in this case not into granite but into shale, already disintegrating: "I go to college." Two years later Chris Albert would be dead, shot in the chest and killed during a Fourth of July celebration on the Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach.

Another shootout, but not in a movie that John Wayne would comprehend, let alone make. This was a postmodern outlaw, attacking class and gender and race with weapons unsharpened by education or insight but by privilege, the privilege inherent in living in "tomorrow's city today."

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