To a generation of readers, Joan Didion is best known as the author who deftly chronicled family collapse: her husband’s death, later her daughter’s, and the waves of melancholy that such losses trigger. The whole of her 21st-century career has rotated around that book of setbacks, 2007’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
Too bad, at least in a way, since she spent most of her early career generating fiction and nonfiction that astutely called out perils of domestic power gone amok and how it made tyrants into friends. In “The Last Thing He Wanted,” her final novel, this incendiary mixture of Latin American authoritarianism and U.S. policymaking — which between 1950 and 1990 constantly overlapped — is fuel for storytelling.
Elena McMahon drops her job as a top-flight political reporter to do a favor for her ailing “deal-making” father, an odyssey that takes her to a malignant island off the Costa Rican coast, one in which illegal weapons traffic abounds. But who’s the middleman? Could it be dear old Dad (and friends). Enter Mr. Treat Morrison, an archetypal Didion spook, an American insider in an odd place tasked with doing dirty deeds but also equipped with moral compass.
Elena soon finds she’s in over her head, “caught in the pipeline, swept into the conduits,” but she’s not inclined to object. Suddenly in the thrall of intrigue, seduced by her own story, she lets Stockholm syndrome set in. Truth seems best from her vantage point and liaisons turn improbable.
Elena’s inside story is shared by someone who calls herself a “not quite omniscient author,” familiar with the principle actors but not necessarily reliable, which is fair enough since this is a tale of primary agendas in second-tier places, with CIA machinations and memories of 1980s Nicaragua providing the thrust. Before so much grief, this is what Didion did for a living, and well.