The Last Thing He Wanted

Overview

In her first novel in twelve years, the legendary author of Play It As It Lays and Slouching Toward Bethlehem trains her eye on the far frontiers of the Monroe Doctrine, where history dissolves into conspiracy (Dallas in 1963, Iran Contra in 1984), and fashions a moral thriller as hypnotic and provacative as any by Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene.

In that latter year Elena McMahon walks off the presidential campaign she has been covering for a major newspaper to do a favor for ...

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The Last Thing He Wanted

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Overview

In her first novel in twelve years, the legendary author of Play It As It Lays and Slouching Toward Bethlehem trains her eye on the far frontiers of the Monroe Doctrine, where history dissolves into conspiracy (Dallas in 1963, Iran Contra in 1984), and fashions a moral thriller as hypnotic and provacative as any by Joseph Conrad or Graham Greene.

In that latter year Elena McMahon walks off the presidential campaign she has been covering for a major newspaper to do a favor for her father. Elena's father does deals. And it is while acting as his agent in one such deal—a deal that shortly goes spectacularly wrong—that she finds herself on an island where tourism has been superseded by arms dealing, covert action, and assassination. The Last Thing He Wanted is a tour de force—persuasive in its detail, dazzling in its ambiguities, enchanting in its style.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Gripping...Didion at her finest." —USA Today"Simultaneously lucid and surreal . . . the result is entrancing." —The New Yorker"Remarkable. . . . Didion has created a menacing world where the reader is held hostage." —Los Angeles Times"Dark detail, understatement and intelligence work their astonishing magic." —The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner

No one else writes like Joan Didion, and 10 books into her career -- The Last Thing He Wanted is her fifth novel -- her spare prose style has calcified into a set of trademark tics. Coolly detached, free of both adjectives and humor and fond of repeated phrasings, Didion's sentences march down the page with the weary, jaded poise of an haute couture model striding into a Burger King.

At its very best, it's a tone you could call Hemingway meets Janet Malcolm, and in the early sections of The Last Thing He Wanted Didion uses it to create a real sense of humid, brewing drama; you fall into the book as if into a dream. Set in the mid-1980s, The Last Thing He Wanted is a political drama about an enigmatic female Washington Post reporter named Elena McMahon who quits her job and -- through a set of faintly bizarre circumstances -- becomes involved in running illegal Iran-contra arms shipments.

Didion is a bit of a conspiracy buff, but given a choice between her whispery, paranoid minimalism and the kind of blustery, paranoid maximalism that Norman Mailer has injected into his last few political novels, I'll take Didion's approach. Yet, as compulsively readable as The Last Thing He Wanted is -- I finished it in one sitting -- the book ultimately feels like a misfire. It spends all its energy cranking out hazy atmosphere, and almost none attending to plot, character or actuality.

One particularly acute problem is that both Elena and the book's narrator -- a writer piecing together her story a decade later -- remain ciphers, even by Didion's standards. Most of what we know about them is dribbled out in disconnected anecdotes. Elena's anguish, for example, is suggested by a scene in which she stands up during an Academy Award dinner in Hollywood and proclaims, "I can't fake this anymore."

The inclusion of that Academy Award dinner scene is telling. Throughout The Last Thing He Wanted, Didion is fatally enamored with the trappings of political and media power, and tinny sentences abound: "Download all data. Uplink Prague, get some conference calls going," or, "This was a man generally perceived as a mover, a shaker, a can-do guy, someone who appeared to thrive on negotiation, on dealing..."

In the end, Didion's self-conscious, steam-heated prose becomes self-parodying. She's plumped up her narrative with so much woozily artificial drama that it isn't until the fog machine quits that you realize that there never was any there there. -- Salon

Michiko Kakutani
...This is the story that Ms. Didion has set out to tell in The Last Thing He Wanted, a dark, willfully elliptical novel that often reads like a thematic and stylistic distillation of the author's work to date....like all her previous novels, it features an alienated heroine, a woman with a radical sense of detachment, a woman who has trouble connecting the past with the future, her heart with her actions....With each of her novels, Ms. Didion has moved further and further from the realm of the personal toward that murky realm where the private and the political intersect. Despite Ms. Didion's nimble orchestration of emotional and physical details, despite her insider's ear for lingo, her conspiratorial view of history never feels terribly persuasive....In the end, what's meant to be existential angst feels more like self-delusion; what's meant to be disturbing feels more like paranoia. -- New York Times
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A political reporter doing her father a favor ends up caught in a tropical conspiracy. Sept.
Library Journal
In Didion's first novel in 12 years, there's plenty of hard travelin from California to Central America, the Caribbean, Washington, and Floridaas the heroine connects Cuba, Iran contra, and JFK's assassination.
Kirkus Reviews
Didion's fifth novel (Democracy, 1984, etc.) is further proof that she's a better journalist than novelist. This fragmentary, reflexive exercise in fiction is full of annoying narrative gestures—repetitions, self-criticisms—that distract from a plot worthy of a conspiracy-obsessed age.

Elena McMahon, the sleepwalking heroine, wanders into international intrigue in the last days of the Cold War. Constantly reinventing herself, she's been a dutiful mother, a supportive wife to a Los Angeles oil mogul, and a Washington Post reporter. Now estranged from her husband, and fed up with the Hollywood social life, she's wrangled a job covering the '84 presidential campaign, but she simply walks away from it when she hears of her mother's death. With her spoiled daughter's complaints ringing in her ears, Elena reluctantly visits her father, an amoral hustler and deal- maker planning his last big score. When his failing health prevents him from running arms to Costa Rica to help resupply the contras, the clueless Elena goes in his stead, not knowing that her father was being set up by a sleazy senator's aide to be the patsy in an assassination plot that would justify further US involvement in Nicaragua. When Elena begins to put together some of the pieces—the belated news of her father's death, the reappearance of a mysterious Salvadoran colonel—she "goes feral," hiding out on an island where she discovers further evidence of American espionage. She eventually escapes, using a fake passport, but on returning home becomes the subject of an investigation by State Department "crisis junkie" Treat Morrison. What neither Morrison nor Elena realizes is that the game set in motion by shadowy elements of the American government is still very much alive.

A pinched narrative sacrifices the pleasures of conventional character development, with Didion opting instead for a convoluted and over-the-top exploration of political skullduggery.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679752851
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/1997
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 227
  • Sales rank: 1,423,691
  • Lexile: 1140L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.66 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Didion
Joan Didion was born in California and lives in New York City. She is the author of five novels and seven previous books of nonfiction.

Biography

One of the strongest voices in American letters, Joan Didion has made her mark with fiercely intelligent novels (Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer), insightful nonfiction (Salvador, Political Fictions), and screenplays co-written with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne (Panic in Needle Park, Up Close and Personal).

Born in Sacramento, Didion attended the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1956 with a degree in English. After college, she moved to New York to work for Vogue magazine. Recognized immediately as a talented and insightful writer, she contributed frequently to such diverse publications as Mademoiselle, Esquire, The New York Times, and National Review; and in 1963 she published her first novel, Run River. She and Dunne were wed in 1964; and for the remainder of their married life, they divided their time between New York and L.A., collaborating frequently on Hollywood scripts while developing separate and distinguished literary careers.

In December of 2003, Dunne died of a massive heart attack, while the couple's recently married daughter, Quintana Roo, lay comatose in a New York hospital. Didion spent the next year blindsided by a grief so profound it propelled her into a sort of madness. She chronicled the entire experience in The Year of Magical Thinking, a spellbinding memoir of bereavement written in the spare, elegant prose that has become a hallmark of her work. Published in 2005 (scant months after Quintana's death), this elegiac book -- Didion's most personal and affecting work to date -- became a huge bestseller. It received a National Book Award and was turned, two years later, into a successful Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

Since her 1963 debut, Didion has alternated between novels and nonfiction, proving herself a wry and astute observer of America's shifting political and cultural landscape. Written nearly a decade apart, her two essay collections Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968) and The White Album (1979) are considered classics of 1960s counterculture. Moreover, the author's identity as a seventh-generation Californian has colored her writing in profoundly significant ways. For our money, no contemporary American writer has examined more deftly the unique role of "place" in everyday life.

Good To Know

A few interesting outtakes from our interview with Didion:

"My first (and only, ever) job was at Vogue. I learned a great deal there – I learned how to use words economically (because I was writing to space), I learned how to very quickly take in enough information about an entirely foreign subject to produce a few paragraphs that at least sounded authoritative."

"I would like my readers to know that writing never gets any easier. You don't gain confidence. You are always flying blind."

Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, co-wrote seven screenplays, including: The Panic in Needle Park (1971), Play It As It Lays (1973), A Star Is Born (1977), True Confessions (1982), Hills Like White Elephants (1990), Broken Trust(1995) and Up Close and Personal (1995).

She is the sister-in-law of author Dominick Dunne and the aunt of actor/director Griffin Dunne.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 5, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Sacramento, California
    1. Education:
      B.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1956

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