cover image The Last Thing He Wanted

The Last Thing He Wanted

Joan Didion. Alfred A Knopf Inc, $23 (0pp) ISBN 978-0-679-43331-6

Brilliantly written and flawlessly structured, Didion's first work of fiction since 1984's Democracy employs her trademark barbed-wire prose to tell a highly elliptical tale of political intrigue. Elena McMahon, a middle-aged woman of substantial wealth, is divorced and covering the 1984 presidential campaign for the Washington Post when she abruptly walks off her beat and goes to Florida to visit her ailing father. Soon, she has passively allowed herself to drift into a shady arms deal running between Florida and Central America, an enterprise that her father had set up but is physically incapable of seeing through. Didion takes risks in her choice of a nameless narrator, a writer who has only a peripheral knowledge of the people and events around which the story revolves. Indeed, the narrator is piecing together that story considerably after the fact. As a result, the characters are virtually ciphers: the narrator explicitly refuses to provide traditional motivation for their actions. The book is compulsively readable, however, an intellectual thriller that recalls Graham Greene--except that whereas Greene was concerned with the spirituality of desolation, Didion's characters operate in a spiritual void. The cold, detached tone is more than compensated for by the sharpness of Didion's prose and the artful suspense of her plot. This is a major work by one of the shrewdest observers of America's political and cultural life. 100,000 first printing; Random House Audio book. (Sept.)