September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

The Last Thing He Wanted

Current Status
In Season
Joan Didion
We gave it an A-

There are certain structural characteristics that mark a Joan Didion novel, and The Last Thing He Wanted, her fifth work of fiction, is no exception. It has the thick, eerie descriptions of place (Costa Rica and California) for which the author is noted. It has the requisite shady characters (an illegal-arms dealer, a government ”fixer”). It has the sense of men and women doomed from within, and the pervasive atmosphere of a world falling apart. And it has the pared-down style that Didion has made her own. In fact, it has a little too much style. As the narrator relates the 1984 events involving one-time reporter Elena McMahon, ambassador at large Treat Morrison, and the U.S. government’s plan to get illegal weapons to an unidentified Latin American group, those events remain frustratingly unclear, obscured by oblique sentence structure. (That may, of course, be the point, since government is often obscured by government documentation.) Still, ultimately Didion has crafted a work with a rhythm and a logic and an honesty all its own — more like a prose poem than a novel. A-

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