By JONATHAN YARDLEY
Thursday, December 27, 2007
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
In the winter of 1968-69 I was 29 years old, enjoying an academic year's sabbatical from my newspaper job in North Carolina, studying American literature and literary biography but also somewhat belatedly getting a taste of the 1960s. In the company of journalists and graduate students I had my first puff of marijuana -- it didn't take, my opiate of choice being bourbon -- and with my 4-year-old son I caught a matinee showing of "Yellow Submarine," which certainly did take; this lover of jazz became an instant Beatles convert.
I also became a convert to the work of a writer of whom I'd never heard until a graduate student urged that I read her new book. It was a collection of essays called "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," by Joan Didion. I knew and revered "The Second Coming," the great poem by William Butler Yeats from which she had taken her title -- "And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?" -- but I knew nothing at all about Didion. Soon I learned that she was five years older than I but vastly more accomplished, having published essays and journalistic pieces in many national magazines in addition to a well-received first novel, "Run River," in 1963.
Precisely why her essays were pressed upon me I do not recall, but I was impressed. There were 20 of them in all, the focus being primarily on California, the author's native state, but also on her own interior landscape and, in virtually all of them, the conviction that, as she put it in the title essay, "the center was not holding." Didion appeared to have been touched by the feminist movement that was gaining currency at the time, but she showed not a scintilla of doctrinal rigidity or orthodoxy. She was a clear-eyed observer who declined to be roped in by fads, publicists or anyone else's expectations. She found the '60s interesting, occasionally amusing, occasionally scary, and she was always a tough sell:
"Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and, like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not be. The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who 'feels' things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young. Now, at an age when the wounds begin to heal whether one wants them to or not, Joan Baez rarely leaves the Carmel Valley."
What I thought when I read that nearly four decades ago was, in a word: Wow. Not merely does that paragraph deftly (yet not wholly unsympathetically) skewer Baez, for whose singing and persona I have not an iota of affection, but it tells us much more: what happens to people when they become "personalities" before they are ready for that, and what uses we make of them to our own ends. Like so many other paragraphs in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," it transcends its immediate time and subject; all of these essays can be read with as much pleasure and profit as when they were first published, even if memories of Baez and, say, Haight-Ashbury already have faded.
Reading "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" started me off on what has been a long on-and-off love affair with Didion's work. (I have never met her, though I had a very pleasant e-mail acquaintance with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne.) She has never published a word of nonfiction that I have not liked, and she has almost never published a word of fiction of which I can say the same. Her essays and journalism invariably are smart, witty, iconoclastic and deeply informed -- all of them are now collected in a volume from Everyman's Library, "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live" -- but when she turns to fictional storytelling she lapses into unintentional self-parody. Indeed about a quarter-century ago, reviewing her novel "Democracy," I found her fiction so susceptible to parody that I reviewed it by parodying it, something I'd never done before and probably never will do again, but it was, at the time, a hell of a lot of fun.
Now Didion, who is in her early 70s, is generally honored as a major literary figure, almost entirely for her nonfiction. Two years ago, her brave, heartbreaking account of her husband's death and their grown daughter's descent into terrible illness, "The Year of Magical Thinking," confirmed and solidified her high position; it won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction, one of the few occasions in recent years when that prize went to a book that actually deserved it. She maintains an intense interest in matters Californian but still lives in New York, to which she and Dunne moved in 1988.
Though all of her nonfiction stands the test of time -- the essays in "Political Fictions," for example, are to my way of thinking the best and most durable political journalism that has been done in this country in the past two decades -- "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" even now is, in the minds of many readers, the book of hers that they know best and admire most. This may have something to do with nostalgia for the time in which it was published, but if so, it certainly is false nostalgia, as Didion herself never had a single dewy thought about the '60s. A longer quotation from the book's title essay leaves no doubt about that:
"It was not a country in open revolution. It was not a country under enemy siege. It was the United States of America in the late cold spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not. All that seemed clear was that at some point we had aborted ourselves and butchered the job, and because nothing else seemed so relevant I decided to go to San Francisco. San Francisco was where the social hemorrhaging was showing up. San Francisco was where the missing children were gathering and calling themselves 'hippies.' "
What follows is a devastating depiction of the aimless lives of the disaffected and incoherent young. Didion is a cool observer but not a hardhearted one, so she treats these people with the sympathy they deserve, but not a teaspoon more:
"They feed back exactly what is given them. Because they do not believe in words -- words are for 'typeheads,' [one guru] tells them, and a thought which needs words is just one more of those ego trips -- their only proficient vocabulary is in [their] platitudes. As it happens I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one's self depends upon one's mastery of the language, and I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and father do not live together, that they come from 'a broken home.' They are sixteen, fifteen, fourteen years old, younger all the time, an army of children waiting to be given the words."
The ability to dissect the naive and self-indulgent without merely mocking them is rarer than one might think, but it's characteristic of Didion's work. Over and over again, she declines to take the easy way out or to accommodate received opinion. It was fashionable at the time in certain circles to mock John Wayne for any number of reasons, but Didion was honest enough to admit that "when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams," and her portrait of him is, as she subtitles it, "A Love Song." In one sentence, she hits just about all the right notes about Las Vegas, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements, bizarre and beautiful in its venality and in its devotion to immediate gratification, a place the tone of which is set by mobsters and call girls and ladies' room attendants with amyl nitrite poppers in their uniform pockets." California? ". . . time past is not believed to have any bearing on time present or future, out in the golden land where every day the world is born anew." And:
"California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."
Didion has had a lifelong love-hate affair with her native state, as most recently demonstrated by "Where I Was From," a superb essay collection published in 2003, but there can be no question that she understands California as keenly as anyone ever has. This can be said of only a few other writers -- Nathanael West and Raymond Chandler come immediately to mind, along with Robert Towne, author of the screenplay for that masterful movie, "Chinatown" -- which is, when one considers the place California has in U.S. history and mythology, no small distinction in and of itself. What "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" tells us, though, is that California was only the beginning for Didion. Then as now she had her eyes on the nation itself, and few people, then or now, have seen it so clearly.
"Slouching Towards Bethlehem" is available in a Farrar, Straus & Giroux paperback ($14).
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.