Washington Monthly blogger and Irvine resident Kevin Drum pours some long-overdue cold water on one of the most celebrated pieces of SoCal writing, Joan Didion's bit on the Santa Ana winds in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Excerpt from Didion:
We know it because we feel it. The baby frets. The maid sulks....The heat was surreal. The sky had a yellow cast, the kind of light sometimes called "earthquake weather." My only neighbor would not come out of her house for days....In Los Angeles some teachers do not attempt to conduct formal classes during a Santa Ana, because the children become unmanageable.
....It is hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles to realize how radically the Santa Ana figures in the local imagination.
I've lived in Southern California my entire life, and this just doesn't bear any resemblance to anything I know about the place. Santa Ana winds are just....Santa Ana winds. They do whip up brush fires, as Didion says, but otherwise her description seems way, way over the top. Sure, the weather feels a little weird when Santa Anas kick up, but teachers don't cancel classes, pets don't go nuts, people don't stay inside their houses, and Los Angeles doesn't get gripped in crime waves.
Amen. The Santa Anas, while always potentially destructive, figure most radically in the imagination of local writers, who are smart enough to recognize a good metaphor and chance for show-offery when they see one. For instance, Raymond Chandler:
There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
Great writing? Unquestionably. True? Aside from the itchy skin, I think not.
This, I believe, gets close to the heart of the Joan Didion Problem. She is such a gifted descriptive writer that she often can't resist the temptation to wrap her otherwise keen observations with some Chandleresque hyperbole, just to see how the language turns out. It's delightful to read, and leaves lasting impressions on your brain, but many of the impressions are, regrettably, not true. Not only that, but they advertise some near-secretive knowledge -- hey wait, all this time I've been living here and I didn't realize that the Santa Anas were the primordial force unleashing the dark side of human desire?? -- allowing readers to congratulate themselves on being among the minority to break the SoCal code. It's like when postgrads first stumble upon the sunshine/noir dialectic, or when yet another searing cultural critic sees a book-length metaphor in the fact that (gasp!) Brian Wilson couldn't surf.
Still, at least Didion was barking up the right tree. As the amusing list of cultural references on this Wikipedia page illustrate, some people apparently hear the phrase "Santa Ana winds" and assume it must be some kind of sweet Spanish lullaby. Stand back in awe at the song poetry of Debbie Boone:
California, where the sun is warm,
where the winds called Santa Ana make you feel like you belong