Play It as It Lays

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“There hasn't been another American writer of Joan Didion's quality since Nathanael West.” —John Leonard, The New York Times.

A marvel of compression written in spare, expertly honed prose, Play It As It Lays tells the story of minor Hollywood actress Maria Wyeth, in her early 30s, troubled, and the spiritually arid, drug-numbed world through which she moves.

Divorced from her movie-director husband, mother of a little girl, Maria, an ex-model from a tiny Nevada town, is recovering from a breakdown as the novel opens. Via a series of taut, impressionistic scenes, the narrative surveys her path to the present, from a Silver Wells, Nevada, girlhood to Hollywood, a life marked, for Maria, by broken relationships, reliance on pills, and empty sex, and spent among play-acting narcissists.

Written by an author with intimate knowledge of Hollywood, and one of our keenest observers of cultural emptiness, Play It As It Lays is harrowing, a brilliant, unsparing exploration of self-destructive lives. The novel’s hyper-vivid settings—Los Angeles during the searing Santa Ana winds, neon Las Vegas, sunblasted desert towns—are essential to its haunting atmosphere, one with hints of impending doom and shriveling sustenance.




Excerpt from Play It as It Lays




Here are some scenes I have very clear in my mind.

"I always get breakfast out," I say to someone. This is at a dinner party, a group of friends. Maria would say that they were not her friends, but Maria has never understood friendship, conversation, the normal amenities of social exchange. Maria has difficulty talking to people with whom she is not sleeping.

"I go to the Wilshire or the Beverly Hills," I say. "I read the trades, I like to be alone at breakfast."

"In fact he doesn't always get breakfast out," Maria says, very low, to no one in particular. "In fact the last time he got breakfast out was on April 17."

The others at the table look first at her and then away, astonished, uneasy: something in the way her hands are tensed on the edge of the table prevents passing this off. Only BZ continues to look directly at her.

"Oh fuck it," she says then, and tears run down her cheeks. She still looks very straight ahead at no one in particular.

Another scene: she is playing on the lawn with the baby, tossing up drops of water from a clear plastic hose. "Watch out she doesn't get chilled," I say from the terrace; Maria looks up, drops the hose, and walks away from the baby toward the poolhouse. She turns, and looks back at the baby. 'Your father wants to talk to you," she says. Her voice is neutral.

After BZ's death there was a time when I played and replayed these scenes and others like them, composed them as if for the camera, trying to find some order, a pattern. I found none. All I can say is this: it was after a succession of such small scenes that I began to see the improbability of a rapprochement with Maria.


In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter (the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills), Maria drove the freeway. She dressed every morning with a greater sense of purpose than she had felt in some time, a cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator, and she dressed very fast, running a brush through her hair once or twice and tying it back with a ribbon, for it was essential (to pause was to throw herself into unspeakable peril) that she be on the freeway by ten o'clock. Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard, not on her way to the freeway, but actually on the freeway. If she was not she lost the day's rhythm, its precariously imposed momentum. Once she was on the freeway and had maneuvered her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Beverly Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy miles an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night slept dreamlessly. By then she was sleeping not in the house but out by the pool, on a faded rattan chaise left by a former tenant. There was a jack for a telephone there, and she used beach towels for blankets. The beach towels had a special point. Because she had an uneasy sense that sleeping outside on a rattan chaise could be construed as the first step toward something unnameable (she did not know what it was she feared, but it had to do with empty sardine cans in the sink, vermouth bottles in the wastebaskets, slovenliness past the point of return) she told herself that she was sleeping outside just until it was too cold to sleep beneath beach towels, just until the heat broke, just until the fires stopped burning in the mountains, sleeping outside only because the bedrooms in the house were hot, airless, only because the palms scraped against the screens and there was no one to wake her in the mornings. The beach towels signified how temporary the arrangement was. Outside she did not have to be afraid that she would not wake up, outside she could sleep. Sleep was essential if she was to be on the freeway by ten o'clock. Sometimes the freeway ran out, in a scrap metal yard in San Pedro or on the main street of Palmdale or out somewhere no place at all where the flawless burning concrete just stopped, turned into common road, abandoned construction sheds rusting beside it. When that happened she would keep in careful control, portage skillfully back, feel for the first time the heavy weight of the becalmed car beneath her and try to keep her eyes on the mainstream, the great pilings, the Cyclone fencing, the deadly oleander, the luminous signs, the organism which absorbed all her reflexes, all her attention.

So that she would not have to stop for food she kept a hard-boiled egg on the passenger seat of the Corvette. She could shell and eat a hard-boiled egg at seventy miles an hour (crack it on the steering wheel, never mind salt, salt bloats, no matter what happened she remembered her body) and she drank Coca-Cola in Union 76 stations, Standard stations, Flying A's. She would stand on the hot pavement and drink the Coke from the bottle and put the bottle back in the rack (she tried always to let the attendant notice her putting the bottle in the rack, a show of thoughtful responsibility, no sardine cans in her sink) and then she would walk to the edge of the concrete and stand, letting the sun dry her damp back. To hear her own voice she would sometimes talk to the attendant, ask advice on oil filters, how much air the tires should carry, the most efficient route to Foothill Boulevard in West Covina. Then she would retie the ribbon in her hair and rinse her dark glasses in the drinking fountain and be ready to drive again. In the first hot month of the fall after the summer she left Carter, the summer Carter left her, the summer Carter stopped living in the house in Beverly Hills, a bad season in the city, Maria put seven thousand miles on the Corvette. Sometimes at night the dread would overtake her, bathe her in sweat, flood her mind with sharp flash images of Les Goodwin in New York and Carter out there on the desert with BZ and Helene and the irrevocability of what seemed already to have happened, but she never thought about that on the freeway.