This Ain’t Joan Didion’s Sacramento (And It Never Was)

Is there a chance that California’s capital is crying out in some way for its dead daughter? The only so-called “high-value star” of its show? Is that why the town—usually referenced solely as a footnote to where Didion is from—is now only being mentioned on an international scale for serving as the site of a second mass shooting in the span of a month? It’s probable Joan Didion might like to believe in still having that kind of influence from beyond the grave, but the truth is, Sacramento has long been brimming to the surface with a certain kind of rage unique to a town that has always been caught somewhere in between “city” and “suburb.” 

But unlike that other major Californian metropolis—L.A.—that suffers from the same symptom, Sacramento isn’t a hub of anything resembling glitz or glamor (as The Politician rudely calls out with Georgina Hobart’s [Gwyneth Paltrow] line, “Running for governor, it was fun…but can you believe nobody told me you have to move to Sacramento for the job? I mean, what is in Sacramento? Except for farmland and opioids?”).

In contrast to L.A.’s tinsel, you might say its northern counterpart is the realest of the real. The true “every city” of America. It’s also an “aggie town,” as they say. Agricultural, for those who don’t understand the parlance. Indeed, nearby UC Davis brands its sports teams as the Aggies. And yes, it’s a strangely sports-oriented town, despite so many rotund bodies (there’s a lot of fast food options). Some of which were meandering along the K Street Mall area—now rebranded as DOCO (Downtown Commons)—where the shooting in question occurred in the small hours of Sunday, around two a.m. For whatever reason, it’s an area that has never quite “caught on” beyond weekend events, regardless of all the money that’s been funneled into its restoration. Despite all the yuppie-alluring trappings, that sinister underbelly remains. The sinking feeling when you walk through it (or any area thereabouts) that a random homeless person might attack you, popping out of nowhere like the one in Mulholland Drive. This is not to belittle homeless people, but there’s no denying that when one’s mental health goes the way of the dodo, rash and violent actions against strangers are far more likely. 

What’s more, when a person reaches the brink with regard to “playing it society’s way” with no success or no hope of success, that, too, can lead to the kind of behavior that occurred on April 3rd in Sacramento. Eerily enough, it was on April 4th, 1991 that another historic shooting incident took place in the form of what is still the largest hostage rescue operation in the U.S., with a total of forty-one employees and customers being held at gunpoint at Good Guys! electronics store near Florin Mall. The perpetrators were three brothers and their friend (ranging from ages seventeen to twenty-one), all Vietnamese immigrants who expressed a dissatisfaction with life in the U.S. Perhaps more specifically, life in Sacramento. Their goal in carrying out the “mission” seemed as nebulous as those of the gunmen involved in this latest shootout—the only thing being truly clear is that the agitators in the Good Guys! scenario wanted to achieve some form of recognition through notoriety. 

For one of the suspects so far identified in the present situation, Dandrae Martin, vague pursuit of a rap career seems part of his bid to lend legitimacy to prescient lyrics like, “I told him the gun was legal/He knew a nigga was lyin’.” Please try to imagine Joan Didion listening to this. No, no—this isn’t her carefully curated, 50s-inspired version of Sacramento at all. 

And, speaking of that decade when Didion graduated from McClatchy High, there’s a GLOW episode that mentions Sacramento as being like a time machine back to the 1950s. Namely in terms of conservative values, politics and a predilection for being five to ten years behind current trends. Justine (Britt Baron) tells her father, Sam (Marc Maron), before leaving L.A. with her mother, “I hate Sacramento. It’s like going back to the 1950s.” He replies, “You know, I lived through the 1950s, I think you’re gonna be fine.” She asks hopefully, “Will you visit?” He admits, “Uh…probably not.”

Tragically enough, the DOCO website assures that Sacramento is “the next Great American City.” As though we can also expect the next “Great American Novel” any day now, too. As is the case with most places that get written about upon occasion, there is a myth of Sacramento, however minuscule. One that has largely been established and fortified by, that’s right, Joan Didion. Who, let us not forget, couldn’t even be bothered to get buried in the hometown she essentially made a career out of with Run River. Instead, she opted to go back to the one place she vowed she was done with, via a certain iconic essay called “Goodbye to All That.” 

Returning to New York, however, is a rich person’s prerogative, and Bret Easton Ellis was accurate in his assessment of Manhattan as a “moated island” for the affluent (extending, au présent, to the other “auxiliary” boroughs). This includes bestselling authors. Like Didion. Who, if she wasn’t already out of touch with the common man to begin with, certainly became as much as she entered the world of John Gregory Dunne—whose East Coast clout helped Didion further cement herself in that closed-off realm. This, in turn, lent her a newfound superiority. Now considering herself part of the “East Coast elite,” rather than tying herself to the nouveau riche nature of the “Wild West.” But by then, she had already founded her “shtick” on being Californian. So she persisted in focusing on that particular subject, painting it in a bleak, sinister light. Yet one that was always decidedly faux, done for the sake of theatricality—and often speaking from a very myopic perspective. 

Yes, Sacramento has a darkness about it. The kind of darkness that perhaps only David Lynch can understand how to convey by way of his Twin Peaks-ian flair for cinematically commenting on the seedy underbelly of every “wholesome” town. Sacramento is theoretically just such a “wholesome” place. Still associated with the Republican whiteness Didion alludes to in an essay like “Pretty Nancy,” there’s a tendency to forget, based on this kind of representation in somewhat mainstream culture, that, yes, Sacramento is actually a very diverse place. Something that doesn’t shine through in the often white lady-centric depictions it gets via Didion and Greta Gerwig. 

A general distaste for the town is also what shines through in most “nods” to it, which even extended more recently to the pop cultural phenomenon of HBO’s Hacks. Wherein one of the writers of the show clearly wanted to express a personal vendetta against the city through the dialogue of the characters. Specifically in the episode called “1.69 Million.” It is within this context that Las Vegas-based comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and her comedy-writing “assistant,” Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder), decide to go to Sacramento (a.k.a. a filming location in L.A.) to practice her new “confessional” material. When Deborah’s private blackjack dealer, Kiki (Poppy Liu), asks, “Why are you guys going to Sacramento? Can’t you just practice it here?” Deborah replies snarkily, “‘Cause if it works there, it’ll work anywhere.” Yet another swipe at Sacramento being a hick-laden “every city.” Indeed, it was hick-ish of Didion to say something like, “One does not ‘live’ at Xanadu” of her journey to NYC. Kiki then offers, “Fun fact: Sacramento is home to one of the only female serial killers.” The reference here can be none other than Dorothea Puente. 

That dig, of course, would have been enough on its own, but Pat Regan, the writer of the script, sees fit to continue, using Ava as the mouthpiece, with, “I always thought it was so bizarre that Sacramento is the capital of California. It’s like Albany being the capital of New York. It feels like someone tried to guess what cities were gonna be important, like, two hundred years ago and now everyone’s afraid to admit that they were wrong.” Deborah chimes in, “You know what’s crazy? I just listened to that whole thing and I agree with you.” So yes, something everyone can agree on—Joan, Greta, Georgina, Justine, Deborah and Ava: Sacramento is a great place to leave, not live. 

And certainly a great place to deride in one’s work under the guise of “mythologizing” it. Didion, at the very least, debunked her own myth-making with regard to California in general and Sacramento in particular in her 2003 essay collection, Where I Was From. Emphasis on the was—for Didion was most adept at creating as much distance as possible between herself and her preferred subject: the Golden State. Being from the capital of said state, perhaps Didion felt even more “qualified” to speak on all matters regarding the expansive milieu. Yet, at the same time, rarely, if ever, bothered to connect with it on any meaningful level after spending years in various ivory towers throughout L.A. Her roots in the capital might still be wrapped up in her great-great-grandfather’s presently nonexistent saloon in Old Sacramento (where she mentions taking her daughter in Where I Was From), but she seemed to decide on severing that false sense of connection by purposefully not mentioning the saloon to Quintana. After all, Quintana was adopted, as she and John mentioned to her several times. She didn’t have to feel any emotional connection to Sacramento whatsoever. And it’s fairly obvious that Didion never really did either, something that comes across in her disingenuous writings about the city. 

In a rare actual acknowledgement of still somewhat having a soft spot for her hometown after hitting the big time, Didion gave an interview in 2011 to “local rag” Sactown magazine. The Los Angeles Times would note of the exchanges, “But in her interview, she said she hadn’t been back to Sacramento since the 1990s, and there is no record of her embracing local attempts to honor her literary career and celebrity, including being inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2014.” Even though there’s no denying it would certainly help Sacramento’s cachet to have some sort of official tribute to Didion, whether a statue or a museum. But as a fellow Berkeley alumna in the same L.A. Times article is quoted as saying, “I don’t think Sacramento is all that successful in being the cultural place it tries to be. Sacramento tries very hard and I think that’s the same Sacramento that she wrote about as well.” In short, doing its “best” is not enough for those seeking “more.” So evidently enraged by the lack of “more” that they need to go around shooting the place up.

Yet it is so often those same ones “seeking” who end up crawling back into town with their tail between their legs. Perhaps as a direct result of declaring they’ll never return, seemingly unaware of The Curse of the Two Rivers, an old “legend” that posits anyone who says they’ll never live in Sacramento again will end up being pulled back—stemming from a Native American belief in the power of the confluence of the city’s two rivers: the American and the Sacramento.  

To that point, Didion, who evaded the curse, further remarked in her Sactown interview, “I would have to say the rivers are my strongest memory of what the city was to me. They were just infinitely interesting to me. I mean, all of that moving water. I was crazy about the rivers.” So yeah… she doesn’t really sound all that “tapped in.” 

Didion mentions in the same interview her romanticization of what it would have been like to work at the State Fair. Ironic, considering she would later say of New York that she had “stay[ed] too long at the fair.” In said essay, she also describes “the map of Sacramento County I had hung on the bedroom wall to remind me who I was.” And yet, it was so obvious that forgetting who she was fed into at least some of her success in the “big city.” Stamping it all out and reinventing it for more literary purposes. Ones that do not, and never really did, accurately depict Sacramento. Which, to be frank, was rather honestly depicted in the horror of April 3rd. This does not mean the capital city is without its charms—there are many heart-warming things about it. But that Twin Peaks-ian darkness is something that Didion never truly captured. Nor the eclectic and diverse population of one of California’s largest cities. 

Mind you, there are so many “shitty towns” in America (commonly billed as the ones in between L.A. and New York). But it seems there is something special about Sacramento to get so frequently maligned for it. And maybe it’s because people still expect it to somehow be more than what it is. As though it still has all this untapped potential to live up to. But how can it, when all the good talent leaves? Only to describe it not so fondly (and not even so accurately while doing so). And why would they bother trying now, what with another macabre story to tell about it? 

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