Didion’s collection opens with a searing essay called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream.” It has become one of the author’s iconic pieces, a model of the form. Still, for all that’s been said about the essay, it’s worth looking at again, both for how it sets up the rest of the book and how it establishes the key elements of Didion’s authorial stance. It is a story about a murder in which the crime and its protagonists are not even described until four pages have passed. At its heart is a tawdry domestic drama—the marriage of Gordon and Lucille Miller, a San Bernardino couple awash in debt and acrimony, which ends with Gordon being burned up in the back of the family Volkswagen, in a fire Lucille may or may not have set. For Didion, this is nothing short of a master metaphor, one rooted not only in the actual events but in the Southern California noir tradition, “in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplaces of middle-class life.”
Didion is always attuned to the role landscape plays in human agency, to the exigencies and influences of place. And for her, place has everything to do with weather—or more broadly, what we might call the elements. Growing up in Sacramento, a delta city sustained by farming and protected from the adjacent river by a complex, New Orleans-style network of levees, she knows the risks of nature in her bones. That’s clear from the opening lines of “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” with their invocation of the Santa Ana winds:
This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country. The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind, the month when breathing is difficult and the hills blaze up spontaneously. There has been no rain since April. Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows.
What we’re seeing is the creation of a narrative. It’s a narrative of conditionality, of breakdown, in which the physical environment and the human environment can’t help but reflect each other. Lucille and Gordon Miller are the perfect protagonists for such a tale: rootless, grasping, unable to believe in much of anything, not even (or especially) themselves. They have come to California looking for something. But as these opening lines make explicit, it is the wrong California, “the last stop for all those who come from somewhere else.”