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The Spur Posse Redux: Didion Explores the Paradox of Class

July 22, 1993|BOB SIPCHEN | Bob Sipchen's Magazines column is published Thursdays.

"No!" you shout, choking back a shell-shocked sob. You close your eyes and clap your palms against your ears, chanting: "No more Spur Posse stories! No more Spur Posse stories!"

But wait! LISTEN!

This one's by Joan Didion, California's unofficial journalist laureate in exile (New York).

And it's in the New Yorker, so it's probably chock full o' redeeming social significance!

Readers who reluctantly take the plunge and read all 18 pages of this 400 millionth Spur Posse story will learn nothing new about Lakewood's resident bonehead boys. The on-the-streets research is thin, the best quotes pulled from newspapers, from other writers' use of newspapers, and responses to questions from such insightful talk-show hosts as Jane Whitney, Maury Povich and Geraldo.

But readers may gain some insight into Southern California, if they can overlook the insecure snobbish streak that too often undermines Didion's work.

The author's approach here is most enlightening for its historical context. Lakewood, she reports, sprang from flat farmland in 1950, a hugely ambitious subdivision of 17,500 one-story stucco houses in seven plans, ranging from 950 to 1,100 square feet.

The town soon boasted a huge retail shopping mall, and a burgeoning post-war defense industry moved in to fund generations of consumers.

As developer Mark Taper said in 1969, "We've developed good citizens.

"Enthusiastic owners of property. Owners of a piece of their country--a stake in the land."

For the better part of four decades, defense contractors such as McDonnell Douglas supported dozens of Southern California sub-cities. Towns like Lakewood, Didion says, "managed to increase the proletariat and simultaneously, by calling it middle class, to co-opt it."

But now--as Didion demonstrates with a string of painful statistics--defense is pulling out fast.

And with its economic foundation kicked out from under it, she says, the "artificial ownership class" in Lakewood can barely hang on.

"What," the author wonders, "are the pitons you drive into the granite?"--of a social class to which you have no legitimate claim, she might as well add, nose upturned.

One answer she finds in Lakewood: sexual bravado. Another: patriotism worn on one's sleeve.

Didion's old-blood California class consciousness is, as usual, insufferable. She feels obliged to remind readers that she's of pioneer stock--obliquely linking herself to Joan Irvine Smith--and using her vaunted familial toughness as a measure of other Californians.

"New people, we were given to understand, remained ignorant of our special history, insensible to the hardships endured to make it, blind not only to the dangers the place still presented but to the shared responsibilities its continued habitation demanded," she writes--as if growing up in sixth generation Sacramento privilege qualifies her for a heroic role in "Little House on the Chaparral."

Didions past were known to sniff, "The trouble with these new people is they think it's supposed to be easy."

That's also this Didion's basic beef against Lakewoodians.

"This is not a community that pushes its children hard," she writes, sweepingly. (Are we really to believe that aerospace engineers and missile assemblers are somehow inherently softer on their kids than, say, journalists?)

There is, however, some good stuff here. Woven into the intricately structured story are some understated, purely Didionesque bull's-eyes.

For example, folks facilely point to "low self-esteem" (the catch-all modern culprit) as the bane of the Lakewood girls. But only Didion seems to have noticed that the problems actually stem from the fabulously bloated self-esteem of the Posse boys--which she attributes to a sports-oriented culture, with its "idealization of adolescent males."

More important are Didion's thoughts on Southern California's military-industrial-real estate complex.

"The perfect circularity of the enterprise, one in which politicians controlled the letting of government contracts to companies that in turn utilized the contracts to employ potential voters, did not encourage natural selection," she writes.

It did, however, clog Southern California with subdivisions and freeways and people with far fewer options than were available to the gold miners, railroaders, land speculators and other ne'er-do-wells who headed West six or seven generations back.

Didion's story recognizes this basic SoCal paradox: "If we could still see California as it was, how many of us could now afford to see it."

Or, stated differently, the Lakewood peasantry is icky, but without it California's cultural nobility wouldn't exist.

All in all, though, Didion's class analysis doesn't hold up. These days, strains of Spur Posse stupidity can be found in old money Pasadena, nouveau riche Newport Beach, impoverished Watts and even, one suspects, upper-crust Sacramento.

Required Reading

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