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The Last Thing He Wanted Paperback – September 2, 1997

3.3 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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The Underground Railroad
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"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Elena McMahon is a reporter for the Washington Post and the unlikely inheritor of her father's complex and secretive life as an arms dealer for the U.S. Government in Central America. The year is 1984, and as she flies to an unnamed island off the coast of Costa Rica, she is oblivious to the spies, American military personnel, and the consequences of her father's errors that await her. She's also unprepared for the advances of Treat Morrison, an American diplomat whose service under six administrations has made him a "crisis junkie." Treat narrates this story, offering a unique perspective on Elena, a woman who abandons one life for another. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Brilliantly written and flawlessly structured, Didion's first work of fiction since 1984's Democracy employs her trademark barbed-wire prose to tell a highly elliptical tale of political intrigue. Elena McMahon, a middle-aged woman of substantial wealth, is divorced and covering the 1984 presidential campaign for the Washington Post when she abruptly walks off her beat and goes to Florida to visit her ailing father. Soon, she has passively allowed herself to drift into a shady arms deal running between Florida and Central America, an enterprise that her father had set up but is physically incapable of seeing through. Didion takes risks in her choice of a nameless narrator, a writer who has only a peripheral knowledge of the people and events around which the story revolves. Indeed, the narrator is piecing together that story considerably after the fact. As a result, the characters are virtually ciphers: the narrator explicitly refuses to provide traditional motivation for their actions. The book is compulsively readable, however, an intellectual thriller that recalls Graham Greene?except that whereas Greene was concerned with the spirituality of desolation, Didion's characters operate in a spiritual void. The cold, detached tone is more than compensated for by the sharpness of Didion's prose and the artful suspense of her plot. This is a major work by one of the shrewdest observers of America's political and cultural life. 100,000 first printing; Random House Audio book.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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The latest book club pick from Oprah
"The Underground Railroad" by Colson Whitehead is a magnificent novel chronicling a young slave's adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. See more

Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Reprint edition (September 2, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679752854
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679752851
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #451,719 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ricky Hunter on May 12, 2001
Format: Paperback
Joan Didion's The Last Thing He Wanted is a mysterious, gentle little book that ultimately is quite sad. Elena McMahon does a favour for her father and through that favour and through her we see the large unfathomable world of conspiraces and esponiage boiled to very human elements. There is a cold spareness to the writing that left this reader unmoved until after it was over and then the sadness powerfully washed over me. It is an unique and haunting look at the choices people make and the lives and events that one can affect with simple, irrevocable gestures. A beautiful novel.
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By A Customer on December 31, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I bought this novel from a bargain bin (because of the cover design), put it on a shelf, and didn't open it for over a month. When I finally picked it up, I read only twelve pages before I grabbed my highlighter... The writing style is deceptively simple and highly structured--breathtaking, actually. And the story is fantastic (and well told). Highly recommended.
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Format: Paperback
Joan Didion is that rare thing: an American woman of letters whose pronouncements on that country's way of life are considered to bear great weight. Journalist, essayist, novelist and columnist, her intelligent and perceptive observations have probed her nation's psyche for three decades.

In this, her 10th book and fifth novel, she turns a fictional probe on the machinations of American politics in the Orwellian significant year of 1984. The story takes in the workings of US central administration and international diplomacy, as well as the American media and the shady operators who work on the fringes of State corruption.

Elena McMahon is a journalist reporting on the presidential election campaign when, to oblige her father, Dick, who "does deals", she goes to Central America in his stead. There she find herself adrift, a pawn in a game with rules she can only begin to grasp, at the heart of an arms trafficking operation and a political conspiracy around Treat Morrison, American Ambassador-At-Large.

Elena's story is related by an unnamed, "not quite omniscient author... who wanted the story to materialise for you [reader] as it did for me [narrator]". The novel employs such tricks throughout, calling attention to an awareness of its own methods and questioning the conventions of all modern narrative forms - fiction, journalism, thriller writing, reportage, even film scripts. "What we want here is a montage, music over," begins one chapter. "Angle on Elena. Alone on the dock... taking of her scarf and shaking out her hair."

Didion is a superb stylist with a number of signature techniques, the most characteristic being the way she repeats key phrases with minute but important variations.
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Format: Paperback
If you have read a number of Joan Didion novels, particularly starting in the 1980s, she turns her attention progressively on our neighbors in to the south, and American meddling in their internal affairs. This is certainly the case in The Last Thing He Wanted, which chronicles the mishaps of a novice on the scene of international arms smuggling on an unnamed Caribbean Island.

As many commentators have said, there are deep shades of Graham Greene in this novel (and most of the other novels she has written in this vein). For someone moving through Didion's oeuvre, there is not anything new to stimulate. If you are coming to Didion fresh, no doubt you are in for an interesting ride. Didion had a terse way of building narrative tension. She moves back and forth in time effortlessly, allowing the reader to see every nook and cranny of her created world.

However, if you have read her a great deal, this world is a repeat. Her concerns in this period are rather narrow, and it comes across in this novel.
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By A Customer on March 15, 1998
Format: Paperback
I'm a fan of Didion's pitch-perfect deadpan prose, but if you aren't, there are other joys in this novel. It offers a post-Orwellian assessment, in human, personal terms, of 1984, with a particular focus on the Fourth of July on an unnamed Caribbean island. Along with Don DeLillo's "The Names," Didion's novel is a masterpiece of American paranoia. It offers a dark yet plausible scenario of the collapse of American democracy under the weight of expansionist ambitions, mass media, and the stunning sang-froid of the silent majorities. A bit confusing at times, the novel is psychologically (and syntactically) complicated but apparently well researched--it is also very confrontational, relentless in its outrage and hopelessness.
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Format: Hardcover
This book is a rarity-- experimental writing that isn't boring. That's because Didion isn't playing with words as with most experimental writing, but working them to show us "the way we live now," which is the classic novel's function but which the classic novel can't do anymore. Normal human existence today doesn't occur in the classic novel's milieu, which was a largely natural world mitigated by culture. Even in John D. MacDonald's 1960s thrillers, the characters interacted in piney woods, cypress strands, and turtle glass flats as well as marinas, high rises, and condos. But-- in Didion's book-- the motels, airports, hospitals, marinas, high rises and condos have pretty much blocked out the other stuff, as far as most human activity goes. So the traditional dramatic narrative becomes artificial, sentimental, as she says. The "natural" way to describe such activity is as reports, dossiers, files, as in this book. Now, instead of mitigating nature, culture has begun to mimic nature's more lethal abstract qualities-- predation, storms, temblors. That might seem an "end to nature," as the popular catchword has it. But, as Didion's fascination with disasters implies, nature is still out there, behind the seawalls, as she might say: "waiting."
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