Joan Didion has long since decamped to New York, but she is a native daughter of the Golden West. So unlike many Gotham-based scribes, when Ms. Didion casts her gaze upon one or another aspect of the Left Coast she brings a familiar’s clarity of nuance rather than the more pedestrian opacity of caricature set down by scornful outsiders.
Her essay “Quiet Days in Malibu” (1978) had many effects upon me all at once. It was a jog to my memories, to be sure: I was a teenager living in West Los Angeles at the time, going to summer camp above County Line beach, hanging with friends with houses along PCH, and living on the fault line of the “Local vs. Valley” surf culture that sought to claim territory gang-style along the sandy stretches of the Santa Monica Bay. She reminded me how different Malibu was then, transitioning from a long cliffside artist’s colony to a millionaire’s neighborhood, and bearing at the same time the marks of each.
Most stirring, though, was that through her description of the place and her profiles of a handful of worthy but unsung locals she allowed me to see the place in a way that I had felt but had never articulated. I had dismissed Malibu in my mind for what it has become: a West Coast Cape Cod, a retreat for the rich and famous hungry for the geographic isolation that served as a poor substitute for privacy. Didion gently removed those specs, reminding me about what I had quietly loved about Malibu in my youth. It was perhaps less the scenery, less the inspiration of rocky perches above the Pacific, than my unspoken belief that there was something inherently egalitarian in a community where rock producers, movie stars, and aerospace executives could live alongside bohemians, painters, surfers, bikers, and squatters in a kind of harmonious melange.
This was the essence of what I loved about California, what made me proud to be a Californian, and what brought me back to the California coast after decades abroad. Malibu for me was a place where your checking account was at best an amplifier for your character, but that in the end it was your character that determined your merit, not your car, your mansion, or where you grazed. It was an earthy retreat from the pervasive superficiality of Tinseltown.
I set down the essay and I stared out the window of my home, a half-hour up the coast and worlds away from Malibu, which is now a city and not just a community. Call it nostalgia or idealism if you must, but Joan Didion made me wonder if that eclectic, egalitarian Malibu might still be there under the mansions, the tourist joints, and the bougie eateries.
Perhaps I will don my t-shirt and cutoffs, climb into my pickup truck, and drive down and look for it.
(Photo: Malibu, California, early 1970s by R.L.Huffstutter)