IN 1973, TOM WOLFE elected Joan Didion into the coveted circle of New Journalists after the latter published, in the Saturday Evening Post, "How Can I Tell Them There's Nothing Left?" It was the story of Lucille Miller, a suburban California housewife who was convicted of murdering her dentist husband for the insurance money and to be free to run off with her more prosperous lover. By then the piece had been retitled "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" for inclusion in Didion's groundbreaking collection, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," and the essay invited readers to see Miller as a weathervane, an emblem of California in the late 20th century, "a tabloid monument to [the] new life style."
In this and other essays, Didion wrote of the ways in which the country's "center was not holding," and regarded unmoored postwar Californians as especially susceptible to the kind of delusions that led to random, reckless acts. Didion wrote that Miller, who fancied herself a vixen out of "Double Indemnity," "had somehow misunderstood the promise" of the West and let her febrile dreams of social mobility unwind into madness. "This is a Southern California story," wrote Didion.
Perhaps Miller "had wanted too much," Didion told us. But this dentist's wife "who believed in all the promises of the middle class" and yearned for "the good life" had settled for "a modest house on the kind of street where there are always tricycles and revolving credit and dreams about bigger houses, better streets." The bigger house and better street came, but it was still not enough for her. In the end, she was found guilty by store clerks and homemakers, "the very peers ... above whom Lucille Miller had wanted so badly to rise."
Last Saturday night, a pair of married real estate agents from Mission Viejo checked into the Montage Resort & Spa, one of the most spectacularly situated resorts on the Southern California coast, a luxurious getaway built in the California Craftsman bungalow style -- only, in typical California-visionary fashion, this "bungalow" has 262 rooms. The couple may or may not have booked spa treatments or made reservations at the bluff-top Studio restaurant. They may or may not have packed sunscreen and beach books for their Laguna Beach jaunt. But they did pack heat and a bag of ammo. The next day, Kevin Park and his wife, Joni, who allegedly also had dreamed of bigger houses, better streets, the good life, were dead after an early morning standoff with local police. This is not just a California story; this is a Joan Didion story.
Apparently Joni Park also wanted too much, wanted to trade in the modest house in Mission Viejo for something in ritzier Newport Beach. According to a neighbor, Park thought Mission Viejo was beneath her. Newport Beach and Laguna Beach boast the picturesque Coast Highway; inland Mission Viejo has the traffic-choked Interstate 5.
Reportedly there was some business problem that needed attention last weekend, and the couple had decided that the best way to work things out was to check into a celebrity-rich resort with their three children, using cash and fake names, to talk it all over, with a firearm handy. This was to be a peculiarly California-style family confab. As the Parks' 23-year-old daughter explained, "It was, like, why not be in a place of beauty when we're all together?"
I know the Montage well; in front of the bungalow where the Parks died, bunnies jump around under the bougainvillea and purple pride of Madeira. Staffers discreetly step to the side of the path to let guests pass. The Parks tried to leave Mission Viejo behind in the type of $2,200-a-night suite in which movie stars hole up to read scripts.
"The dream," Didion wrote about the Miller case, "was teaching the dreamers how to live." Miller played out a tabloid fantasy by going off to prison pregnant and having the baby in jail; she was a Jerry Springer guest before her time. The Parks opted for "Bonnie and Clyde"-style pop tragedy. Somewhere in there they must have decided there would be no going back to their 'burb by the 5; somewhere in there they must have decided to get the ultimate late checkout, while living a fantasy of the good life.