It has been years since I read any Joan Didion, but I remembered her as an acute, honest observer of the human condition, who wrote incisive prose. Now that the `60's rank with the ancient history of the Peloponnesian Wars for over half the American population, I decided to re-read one of her classic works, and was not disappointed; in fact, her essays aged well, and resonated with my own life experiences.
The essay that lends its name to the title of this collection is the longest, "Slouching towards Bethlehem," concerning Haight-Asbury in 1967, and a title taken from a W.B Yeats poem. It is a sad, honest portrait, and Didion highlights the inarticulateness of those who washed in, seeking a new utopia. None of the portraits show much empathy, and some are justifiable frightening, particularly how the young children were being raised. And she foreshadows the dark side of what would become of the "summer of love."
Overall, the collection of essays is divided into thirds, with the first part focusing on various aspects of California. I felt the strongest one is "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," which concerns a woman who fled a fundamentalist existence in Manitoba, marries, pursues the "dream," and eventually burns her husband to death. There are other telling vignettes on John Wayne, Howard Hughes and Joan Baez, along with a "Comrade Laski."
The second section of essays are personal reflections, such as the thoughts on maintaining a notebook, and the third section is entitled "Seven Places of the Mind," in reality her reflections on visits to her "real" home in Sacramento, and others on Hawaii, Alcatraz, Newport, R.I., Guaymas, Mexico, her new home of Los Angeles, and NYC. Literary references abound, from the title given to the Sacramento piece, "Notes from a Native Daughter," and she thought it suitable to borrow Robert Graves' reflections on WW I to mark thoughts of her youth in NYC, Good-bye to all that: An autobiography
And proving that it all ties together somehow, I just purchased a book entitled "String Too Short to Keep," and in Didion's essay "On Keeping a Notebook," she says about a particular entry:"...about bits of the mind's string too short to use..."
The essays are replete with her observations on life, beautifully expressed: "As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for oneself depends upon one's mastery of the language..." Concerning the "palaces" built by the obscenely rich of another gilded era, she says" "that the production ethic led step by step to unhappiness, to restrictiveness, to entrapment in the mechanics of living." In another essay, the one on the "hippies," she is assured that, at 32, there are "old" hippies too. And of her youth in NYC, after a long lunch with Bloody Marys and gazpacho,: "I was not then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way, because I still had all the afternoons in the world."
A wonderful, 5-star read, for one of those delightful, remaining afternoons. Thanks for the re-issue to FSG Classics.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on September 30, 2009)