Spare, elegant, and terrifying, Play It as It Lays is the unforgettable story of a woman and a society come undone.
Raised in the ghost town of Silver Wells, Nevada, Maria Wyeth is an ex-model and the star of two films directed by her estranged husband, Carter Lang. But in the spiritual desert of 1960s Los Angeles, Maria has lost the plot of her own life. Her daughter, Kate, was born with an “aberrant chemical in her brain.” Her long-troubled marriage has slipped beyond repair, and her disastrous love affairs and strained friendships provide little comfort. Her only escape is to get in her car and drive the freeway—in the fast lane with the radio turned up high—until it runs out “somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped.” But every ride to nowhere, every sleepless night numbed by pills and booze and sex, makes it harder for Maria to find the meaning in another day.
Told with profound economy of style and a “vision as bleak and precise as Eliot’s in ‘The Wasteland’,” Play It as It Lays ruthlessly dissects the dark heart of the American dream (The New York Times). It is a searing masterpiece “from one of the very few writers of our time who approaches her terrible subject with absolute seriousness, with fear and humility and awe” (Joyce Carol Oates, The New York Times Book Review).
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About the Author
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:December 5, 1934
Place of Birth:Sacramento, California
Education:B.A., University of California at Berkeley, 1956
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IN THE FIRST HOT MONTH of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway. She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o'clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day's rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum. Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly. By then she was sleeping not in the house but out by the pool, on a faded rattan chaise left by a former tenant. There was a jack for a telephone there, and she used beach towels for blankets. The beach towels had a special point. Because she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable (she did not know what it was she feared, but it had to do with empty sardine cans in the sink, vermouth bottles in the wastebaskets, slovenliness past the point of return) she told herself that she was sleeping outside just until it was too cold to sleep beneath beach towels, just until the heat broke, just until the fires stopped burning in the mountains, sleeping outside only because the bedrooms in the house were hot, airless, only because the palms scraped against the screens and there was no one to wake her in the mornings. The beach towels signified how temporary the arrangement was. Outside she did not have to be afraid that she would not wake up, outside she could sleep. Sleep was essential if she was to be on the freeway by ten o'clock. Sometimes the freeway ran out, in a scrap metal yard in San Pedro or on the main street of Palmdale or out somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped, turned into common road, abandoned construction sheds rusting beside it. When that happened she would keep in careful control, portage skillfully back, feel for the first time the heavy weight of the becalmed car beneath her and try to keep her eyes on the mainstream, the great pilings, the Cyclone fencing, the deadly oleander, the luminous signs, the organism which absorbed all her reflexes, all her attention.
So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying A's. She would stand on the hot pavement and drink the Coke from the bottle and put the bottle back in the rack (she tried always to let the attendant notice her putting the bottle in the rack, a show of thoughtful responsibility, no sardine cans in her sink) and then she would walk to the edge of the concrete and stand, letting the sun dry her damp back. To hear her own voice she would sometimes talk to the attendant, ask advice on oil filters, how much air the tires should carry, the most efficient route to Foothill Boulevard in West Covina. Then she would retie the ribbon in her hair and rinse her dark glasses in the drinking fountain and be ready to drive again. In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter, the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills, a bad season in the city, Maria put seven thousand miles on the Corvette. Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her, bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images of Les Goodwin in New York and Carter out there on the desert with BZ and Helene and the irrevocability of what seemed already to have happened, but she never thought about that on the freeway.
The second picture she had made with Carter was called Angel Beach, and in it she played a girl who was raped by the members of a motorcycle gang. Carter had brought the picture in for $340,000 and the studio had saturation-booked it and by the end of the first year the domestic and foreign gross was just under eight million dollars. Maria had seen it twice, once at a studio preview and a second time by herself, at a drive-in in Culver City, and neither time did she have any sense that the girl on the screen was herself. "I look at you and I know that ... what happened just didn't mean anything," the girl on the screen would say, and "There's a lot more to living than just kicks, I see that now, kicks are nowhere." Carter's original cut ended with a shot of the motorcycle gang, as if they represented some reality not fully apprehended by the girl Maria played, but the cut released by the studio ended with a long dolly shot of Maria strolling across a campus. Maria preferred the studio's cut. In fact, she liked watching the picture: the girl on the screen seemed to have a definite knack for controlling her own destiny.
The other picture, the first picture, the picture never distributed, was called Maria. Carter had simply followed Maria around New York and shot film. It was not until they moved to California and Carter began cutting the film together that she entirely realized what he was doing. The picture showed Maria doing a fashion sitting, Maria asleep on a couch at a party, Maria on the telephone arguing with the billing department at Bloomingdale's, Maria cleaning some marijuana with a kitchen strainer, Maria crying on the IRT. At the end she was thrown into negative and looked dead. The picture lasted seventy-four minutes and had won a prize at a festival in Eastern Europe and Maria did not like to look at it. She had once heard that students at UCLA and USC talked about using her the way commercial directors talked about using actresses who got a million dollars a picture, but she had never talked to any of them (sometimes they walked up to Carter in front of a theater or a bookstore and introduced themselves, and Carter would introduce Maria, and they would look sidelong at Maria while they talked to Carter about coming to see their film programs, but Maria had nothing to say to them, avoided their eyes) and she disliked their having seen her in that first picture. She never thought of it as Maria. She thought of it always as that first picture. Carter took her to BZ and Helene's one night when BZ was running the picture and she had to leave the house after the titles, had to sit outside on the beach smoking cigarettes and fighting nausea for seventy-two of the seventy-four minutes.
"Why does he run it so often," she had said to Carter later. "Why do you let him keep a print out there, he keeps a print in the house."
"He owns it, Maria. He owns all the prints."
"That's not what I mean. I said why does he run it so often."
"He wants Helene to see it."
"Helene's seen it a dozen times. Helene doesn't even like it, she told me so."
"You don't understand anything," Carter had said finally, and they had gone to bed that night without speaking. Maria did not want to understand why BZ ran that first picture so often or what it had to do with Helene. The girl on the screen in that first picture had no knack for anything.
"Maria Wyeth," she repeated to Freddy Chaikin's receptionist. The reception room was full of glossy plants in chinoiserie pots and Maria had an abrupt conviction that the plants were consuming the oxygen she needed to breathe. She should not have come here without calling. Only people in trouble came unannounced to see their agents. If Freddy Chaikin thought she carried trouble with her he would avoid her, because trouble was something no one in the city liked to be near. Failure, illness, fear, they were seen as infectious, contagious blights on glossy plants. It seemed to Maria that even the receptionist was avoiding her eyes, fearing contamination. "He's kind of expecting me," Maria added in a near whisper.
"Maria Wyeth," the receptionist said. "Mr. Chaikin is in the projection room, do you want to wait? Or could he call you."
"No. I mean yes. But tell him it has to be today or —"
The receptionist waited.
"Or I'll talk to him tomorrow," Maria said finally.
In the elevator was an actor she recognized but had never met, the star of a canceled television Western. He was with a short agent in a narrow dark suit, and the agent smiled at Maria as the elevator door closed.
"The word on Carter's dailies is sensational," the agent said.
Maria smiled and nodded. It did not require an answer: it was a cue for the actor, who waited a suitable instant and then picked it up. "Your pocketbook's open," he drawled, and the look he gave Maria was dutifully charged with sexual appreciation, meant not for Maria herself but for Carter Lang's wife. She leaned against the padded elevator wall and closed her eyes. If she could tell Les Goodwin about the actor in the elevator he would laugh. When she got home she thought about calling him, but instead she went upstairs and lay face down on Kate's empty bed, cradled Kate's blanket, clutched Kate's baby pillow to her stomach and fought off a wave of the dread. The time seemed to have passed for telling Les Goodwin funny stories.
She sat on the rattan chaise in the hot October twilight and watched BZ throw the ice cubes from his drink one by one into the swimming pool. They had already talked about Helene's week at La Costa and they had already talked about an actress who had been admitted to UCLA Neuropsychiatry with her wrists cut (the papers said exhaustion, but BZ knew things like that, knew about people, that was why she had called him) and now it was the hour when in all the houses all around the pretty women were putting on perfume and enameled bracelets and kissing the pretty children goodnight, the hour of apparent grace and promised music, and even here in Maria's own garden the air smelled of jasmine and the water in the pool was 85°. The water in the pool was always 85° and it was always clean. It came with the rent. Whether or not Carter could afford the rent, whether it was a month like this one when he was making a lot of money or a month when the lawyers were talking about bankruptcy, the boy came twice a week to vacuum the pool and the man came four days a week to work on the roses and the water in the pool was 85°. Sometimes it occurred to Maria that maybe the pretty children and the enameled bracelets came the same way, but she did not like to think about that.
Tell me who you've seen," she said. She did not much want to hear who BZ had seen but neither did she want BZ to leave. BZ had not yet mentioned Carter. BZ was the producer on the picture, BZ had come in from the location two days before and he was going back to the location tomorrow and he had not once mentioned Carter. Tell me about the Willards' dance."
"Strobe lights in Pasadena." BZ stood up. "On nights like that you could kill yourself for being a Gentile."
"I'm late now. I'm supposed to be somewhere."
"Who is it," she said, not looking at him.
"Nobody special, I'm meeting Tommy Loew, you know Tommy, he's in from New York."
"I don't mean you." She wondered without interest if Tommy Loew was a faggot. "You know I don't mean you."
"I don't know what you're talking about." BZ put his glass on a table, and looked at Maria for a long while. "Just let him finish."
"Who is it." She did not know why she persisted.
"Listen, Maria. I don't know if you know this, but he wanted you in this picture very badly. At one point he was ready to scrap the deal, jeopardize the entire project, just because he wanted to use you."
"I know that."
"Then why not stop thinking Carter designs his every move expressly to thwart you. Why not stop thinking like Carlotta."
"You don't have any idea in your mind how I think." Carlotta was BZ's mother. Carlotta had $35 million and was engaged in constant litigation with her estranged second husband. Maria sat down on the edge of the pool and splashed the clear water over her bare feet. "Listen to the music from the Kuliks'. They're having a party."
"Of course I'm not going. He's a gangster."
"I just asked if you were going to a party, Maria, I didn't ask for a grand-jury indictment." BZ paused. "In the second place he's not a gangster. He's a lawyer."
BZ shrugged. "I think of him more as a philosopher king. He told me once he understood the whole meaning of life, it came to him In a blinding flash one time when he almost died on the table at Cedars."
"Larry Kulik's not going to die at Cedars. Larry Kulik's going to die in a barber chair."
"It's uphill work making you laugh, Maria. Anyway, Larry Kulik's a great admirer of yours. You know what he said to Carter? He said, 'What I like about your wife, Carter, is she's not a cunt.'" Maria said nothing.
"That's very funny, Maria, Kulik saying that to Carter, you lost your sense of humor?"
"I've already heard it. Give me your glass."
"I told you, Tommy Loew. I'm already late."
"Who is it," she repeated.
"He's two weeks behind schedule now, Maria. Just let him finish the picture." BZ stood up, and ran the tips of his fingers very lightly across Maria's bare back. "Seen anything of Les Goodwin?" he said finally.
Maria watched a leaf in the water and tried not to recoil from BZ's fingers. "Les and Felicia are in New York," she said carefully, and then reached for a towel. "You're already late for Tommy Loew, I mean aren't you?"
Later in the week she saw in one of the columns that BZ had been at the Kuliks' party with Tommy Loew and a starlet whose name she did not recognize. She did not know why it annoyed her but it did. She wondered if Tommy Loew and the starlet had gone back to BZ's later, and who had watched whom, and if Helene had been back from La Costa.
"Just wanted you to know I'm thinking of you," Freddy Chaikin said on the telephone. "I'll be frank, I was surprised to hear you wanted to work again. After that debacle with Mark Ross, I just naturally thought —"
"I've always wanted to work." Maria tried to keep her voice even. Freddy would be sitting in his office with the Barcelona chairs and the Giacometti sculpture and anything he wanted to say Maria would have to hear.
"— an actress walks off a set, people tend to think she doesn't want to work."
"That was almost a year ago. I was sick. I was upset about Kate. I haven't walked off any more sets, you know that, Freddy."
"You haven't had any sets to walk off."
Maria closed her eyes. "What are you doing right now, Freddy," she said finally. "You sitting there playing with a Fabergé Easter egg? Or what?"
"Calm down. Actually I talked to Morty Landau about you today at lunch. I said, Morty, you know Maria Wyeth, and he did —"
"I should think so. I had the lead in two features."
"Right, Maria, of course you did. You know that. I know that. And they were very interesting little pictures. Carter parlayed those two little pictures, one of them never distributed, into a very nice thing. Carter's in the enviable position now where he wants to do something, it's just a question of working out the numbers. I'm proud to represent him. I'm proud to represent both of you, Maria. Maybe I could arrange for Morty Landau to see some film, you give me your word that you really want to work."
Excerpted from "Play It as It Lays"
Copyright © 1970 Joan Didion.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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