In 1977, Joan Didion told The Paris Review that she always kept in mind one line of poetry, from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “at the still point of the turning world.” I don’t know if Didion had the still point in mind when she wrote “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” her classic account of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County, published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1966. But another line from Eliot, from the same poem, is almost uncannily prescient when applied to Didion’s narrative: “The Word in the desert / Is most attacked by voices of temptation.”

Your average article on a tabloid-ready murder – “Lust-Mad Wife Wastes Cuckolded Hubby for Cash!” – would begin with the crime: Lucille Miller, born to pious, abstemious parents on the Canadian prairie, renounces her small life for a bigger life and lands in the Southern California valley, and along the way succumbs to the voices of temptation; full of illusions, “in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio,” she craves love and glamour but winds up yielding to lust and desperation, killing all that had supposedly made her good. “It was implicit in both the defense and the prosecution,” Didion writes, “that Lucille Miller was an erring woman, a woman who perhaps wanted too much.”

But this, of course, is not your average tabloid account. It’s Didion – a native daughter of another California valley, the Sacramento; a writer with an affinity for “dangerous” landscapes, as she told The Paris Review – looking down from on high. So instead of a simple tale of a dotty dame gone bad, we get a narrative that’s not really about Miller at all. It’s not even fundamentally about people. It’s about the perverting power of place. And from the first sentence, Didion pours her energy into the setting:

This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.

It does not begin with love and death because in the golden land, love is fleeting and death almost incidental. The people once drawn to this country, or an idea of the country, imagined “they might live among the talismanic fruit and prosper in the dry air,” Didion writes. And then they arrived. And instead of the tranquility they envisioned – “the California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific” – they found a “harsher California, haunted by the Mojave,” an “alien place” where on the “hot dry Santa Ana wind … every voice seems a scream.”

By the time Didion encounters San Bernardino, it is a by-product of people’s insisting they could settle inhospitable country: a valley of emptiness, a counterfeit paradise of garish contradiction, of shallow religious fervor, tacky sentiment and decay. Here, the profane shines brighter than the sacred, and poor souls chasing an American idyll land in a zone that’s all gloss. Or maybe Shellac.

“Imagine Banyan Street first,” Didion writes in the beginning, “because Banyan is where it happened.” “It” is Miller’s crime, which at this point we know nothing about, but no matter. Didion’s brilliant move is to take us there first, her narration a flickering stream of images rushing by our windows:

Past the Santa Fe switching yards, the Forty Winks Motel. Past the motel that is nineteen stucco tepees: “SLEEP IN A WIGWAM—GET MORE FOR YOUR WAMPUM.” Past Fontana Drag City and the Fontana Church of the Nazarene and the Pit Stop A Go-Go; past Kaiser Steel, through Cucamonga, out to the Kapu Kai Restaurant-Bar and Coffee Shop, at the corner of Route 66 and Carnelian Avenue. Up Carnelian Avenue from the Kapu Kai, which means “Forbidden Seas,” the subdivision flags whip in the harsh wind. “HALF-ACRE RANCHES! SNACK BARS! TRAVERTINE ENTRIES! $95 DOWN.”

The proper names are character markers on “the trail of an intention gone haywire.” This is where it’s “routine to misplace the future,” Didion writes, where “a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of ‘Double Indemnity.’” Where God and worship and deliverance – one kind of dream – are quickly supplanted by false idols, sordid headlines and cheap thrills – another kind of dream – and where people who pursue the new dream most zealously, blind to the imperceptible shift, are sucked into the void.

It is also, she writes, “where time past is not believed to have any bearing upon time present or future,” and “every day the world is born anew.” (Echoes of Eliot again: “Time past and time future / Allow but a little consciousness.”)

Didion’s reporting of detail is striking. But even more striking are the layers of meaning she assigns to detail, the way ordinary scenery begins to blaze with moral significance. The foliage of a lemon grove is not just lush and glossy, but “too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” Fallen tree bark is not only dusty, but “too dusty, a place for snakes to breed.”

Setting is foreshadowing, and this is a diabolical patch of ground: a site where serpents multiply, where sins will be committed, where, according to law enforcement officials, Lucille planned to “spread gasoline over her presumably drugged husband and, with a stick on the accelerator, gently ‘walk’ the Volkswagen over the embankment, where it would tumble four feet down the retaining wall into the lemon grove” – into the greenery of nightmare – “and almost certainly explode.” In Didion country, burning bushes become burning Volkswagens. People are delivered not into a land of milk and honey, but to the side of a dark and lonely road, where they’re roasted to a crisp.

As potent and strange as her setting is, she takes pains to stress how pedestrian the central events and characters are, or at least could have been. The Millers’ path is so typical as to be banal: They marry young, they strive, they grow older and hit every rung on the climb to middle-class achievement. They amass the “familiar accoutrements of a family on its way up.” They slide into ennui and reach “the familiar season of divorce.” Theirs is “anyone’s bad summer,” Lucille’s dalliance with another man a “conventional clandestine affair.”

The Millers, in other words, initially aren’t any more corrupt than the rest of us. But the illusion of the place gets to them. Lucille, in particular, is hoodwinked by a promise that isn’t there. And it’s in her breakup with her lover that everything begins to take on another cast — that of pulp novels and Hollywood noir, of “dreams in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplaces.” Which brings us to Didion’s revelation:

What was most startling about the case … was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.

Didion has mapped a geography – physical and psychic – and made it feel like destiny. And she’s done it so skillfully that even if we don’t believe in destiny, we can’t help being seduced by the idea that had the Millers not tried to set down roots in this godforsaken place, they might have been saved. Without this “harsher California” there would be no story of love and death, no illusion to be illuminated, no failure of “time past” to assert its usual hold. The place itself resembles something out of fiction. And there’s a clue, in that same Paris Review interview from 1977, to why Didion, novelist and journalist, so reveled in it: “The writer,” she said, “is always tricking the reader into listening to the dream.”

Jennifer B. McDonald (@jenbmcd) is an editor at The New York Times Book Review and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard.

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