(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Last Thing He Wanted demands its readers’ attention, starting with its ambiguous title and continuing through its complexly zigzagging plot, narrated by someone who does not give her name but reveals enough about herself to suggest she is a fictionalized version of Didion, with an ear for jargon that lets her suggest the truth behind the pretense.

The time of the main events is the summer of 1984, a year that suggests a dystopian society comparable to but not identical with the one in George Orwell’s 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. The narrator, a journalist writing a story on the American diplomat Treat Morrison, eventually finds that this story involves her Los Angeles acquaintance Elena McMahon Janklow, whose daughter once attended a private school with the narrator’s daughter. Elena, upon leaving her rich husband and dropping his surname, moves to the East Coast, enrolls Catherine in a private school in Rhode Island, and takes a job reporting for The Washington Post. She is covering the California primary for the newspaper when she walks off her job, flies to Miami, and, finding her seventy-four-year-old father so confused that he cannot remember that Elena’s mother has died, substitutes for him in accompanying a clandestine planeload of land mines from south Florida to an airstrip in Costa Rica. This mission, the one Dick McMahon expects to bring the financial success that has eluded him, turns out to be a trap...

(The entire section is 548 words.)