Slouching Towards Bethlehem was Joan Didion's second book (following the novel Run River), and immediately established the young writer as one of the finest reporter/essayists of a stellar generation. Only Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson could rival her as a prose stylist or a voice on the page. But where they were loud and show-offy, Didion was restrained, classical, with emotions only hinted at; her effects depended less on obvious narrative experiment or hilarious excess than on the exact balance of a sentence and the careful placement of a clause or adjective, and on a pervasive sense of melancholy. Nearly all her longer essays might bear the classical epigraph Sunt lacrimae rerum -- There are tears in things.
Note the publication date of Slouching Towards Bethlehem: 1968. No year since the end of World War II is more magical, more mythological -- or nowadays more reviled, sometimes by people who should know better. Didion was in her late twenties and early thirties when she produced most of these pieces, and she was writing on deadline for magazines (chiefly, amazingly, the Saturday Evening Post), but she manages to evoke in sentences clear as rainwater that glorious, crazy, doleful time. Can years be charismatic? Well, the late '60s were -- just as they were also absurd and clownish and doomed. But in Didion's pages, those of a certain age will glimpse many old friends: the visionary Maoist hard-liners, the drug-addled flower children, the radically chic, the think-tank idiot savants of the Establishment, the California dreamers and utopians, the idealists who shouted and protested and wept that the world could be changed into a better place.
The more politically charged marches and cinematic protests of 1968 and beyond don't appear here (look for pieces on these years in Didion's equally fine 1979 collection, The White Album). In fact, at least half of Slouching is as personal as Montaigne: thoughts on keeping a notebook; astonishingly sophisticated reflections on self-respect; the famous "Notes of a Native Daughter" on the Central Valley around Sacramento; and paragraphs like prose-poems about family, home, being American.
In the end, though, the sentences matter most. Didion doesn't possess a wide tonal range -- she likes her music in the plangent minor mode -- but open to any page and the voice quietly draws you in, soothing and melodious, then suddenly brings you up short with an ice-pick-to-the-heart detail. Here is Didion in Hawaii visiting a military cemetery. There are, she tells us, "19,000 graves in the vast sunken crater above Honolulu" and then continues:
"I would go up there quite a bit. If I walked to the rim of the crater I could see the city, look down over Waikiki and the harbor and the jammed arterials, but up there it was quiet, and high enough into the rain forest so that a soft mist falls most of the day. One afternoon a couple came and left three plumeria leis on the grave of a California boy who had been killed, at nineteen, in 1945. The leis were already wilting by the time the woman finally placed them on the grave, because for a long time she only stood there and twisted them in her hands. On the whole I am able to take a very long view of death, but I think a great deal about what there is to remember, twenty-one years later, of a boy who died at nineteen. I saw no one else there but the men who cut the grass and the men who dig new graves, for they are bringing in bodies now from Vietnam."
At first the paragraph almost lulls the reader -- until that beautifully constructed sentence about the leis, which one cannot read without seeing the woman's wrenching sorrow. Yet because this essay was written in 1967, we today may actually feel yet another, perhaps deeper pang, resulting from our knowledge of what was yet to come: They would be bringing in many, many more bodies from Vietnam.
I am tempted to go on quoting from these wonderful pages, but I should hardly need to persuade readers of Book World that Joan Didion is one of our finest living writers, and still a marvel (see her latest collection, Political Fictions). Do send in your comments or questions about Slouching Towards Bethlehem for our next online book club discussion on Thursday, Jan. 30 at noon. Readers in the Washington area might also wish to attend "An Evening with Joan Didion" -- on Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 6:30 p.m. (in the Ronald Reagan Building, Atrium Ballroom, 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C.), during which the author and I will discuss her life as a writer and journalist.