Joan Didion, who lives half the year in New York City, presents a baleful look at the deranged and hobbled state of the metropolis in the Jan. 17 New York Review of Books. The intellectual instigation for this essay is the rape of the Central Park jogger and the trial of her assailants, whose coverage and public discourse Didion "reads" as a telling narrative of all that ails the place.

"Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims, offering as they do a ... sentimental reading of class differences and human suffering, a reading that promises both resolution and retribution, have long performed as the city's endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems," Didion writes.

She says much the same thing in variation several times along a discursive journey, drawing fact and revelation from the crime blotter, her run-in with a mugger, the tabloids, Malcolm X, Frederick Law Olmsted, W.J. Cash and Al Sharpton, among others.

An editor could have helped these clause-clogged sentences and the author's predilection for not quite saying all that she means, but still Didion's dark and disgusted monotone compels. She shames us for our ready acceptance of such "sentimental" notions that it is crime and drugs that bedevil New York, rather than something deeper. She prods us to see through the gratifying narratives to "the economic and historical groundwork for the situation in which the city finds itself: that long unindictable conspiracy of criminal and semi-criminal civic and commercial arrangements, deals, negotiations, gimmes and getmes, graft and grift ... the conspiracy of those in the know, those with a connection... ."

An intriguing assertion, and one Didion should explore.

What a Fool We Were

A shot has not yet been fired, but the recriminations are flying already. Paul A. Gigot, in "A Great American Screw-Up" (National Interest, winter) calls the failure of the U.S. approach to Iraq in the 1980s "a foreign-policy tragedy that rivals Dean Acheson's failure to include Korea in the U.S. 'containment' perimeter in 1950" -- a comparison that, along with much of this analysis, suggests Gigot's belief in the tractability of implacable forces.

For most of the last decade, he argues, a forgiving U.S. policy toward Iraq has been a byproduct of, if not a foil to, hostile policy toward Iran, its enemy and ours. Dissenters to this official wisdom, and Gigot identifies a few, were shut out; he also contends that "Congress's Iran-contra vendetta must bear some of the responsibility for creating an environment in which dissenters on the Gulf could not be heard." By the spring of 1990, Washington knew Saddam meant trouble, but by inertia, distraction, timidity and sheer confusion the Bush administration failed to deliver the clear message of warning that might have deterred him from invading Kuwait.

The January issue of Foreign Service Journal offers a package of articles that support many of these contentions. Tracing the course of U.S. policy toward the Persian Gulf in the past decade, David Callahan, author of the new Paul Nitze biography, analyzes the pro-Iraq tilt that couldn't be untilted in time, and UPI's Jim Anderson points to institutional problems in James Baker's State Department and the pitfalls of diplospeak ("Ambiguous language ... can lead to waffling policies"). A Foreign Service officer once stationed in Iran, Henry Precht, lets fly in his contribution against the whole "Who-lost- ... ?" mind-set that punishes diplomats (or legislators or editors) for less-than-perfect prescience about such disasters as the one possibly in the making.

Foreign Service Journal is an independent publication of AFSA, the organization of professional U.S. diplomats. Non-members can receive the monthly for $25 a year by writing AFSA, 2101 E St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20037.


Harrowsmith Country Life, celebrating five years of publication with the January/February issue, is out with its "Seeds Annual" packet of articles, ratings and mail order sources of seeds for growing everything from "turnips to teff, teasel to Tomcat clover" ... ARTnews in January publishes its list of the top 200 private art collectors in the world -- "top" meaning not "investors," not "decorators," but "men and women who buy art with insight, discipline, and concentration on one artist or a group of artists who speak deeply to them." Paul Mellon, Gilbert Kinney, Robert Kogod and Robert H. Smith are the only area collectors on the list. ... Historic Preservation's January/February issue features the 1990 winners' roster of the Great American Home awards -- distinguished rehabilitation projects ranging "from vernacular styles to the most significant of high-style mansions" executed by "young couples who did their own work and corporations that invested in bed-and-breakfast inns." The O'Hare House in Silver Spring won first prize for "Sympathetic Addition."

Kasualty Korner Christmas brought bad tidings for Fame magazine, the often spirited two-year-old monthly, which announced it would close as of the current (January-February) issue. Grim advertising prospects for 1991 have hit one-publication operations and recent startups, of which Fame was both, especially hard. These forebodings of a long debit siege were also behind the decision last week of a much heavier hitter, Forbes, to drop its experimental year-old club-set magazine, Egg. The last issue is March.

There's better news about Games, the imaginative puzzlers' and brainteasers' monthly that went under last spring, dragged down by the dead weight of its owner's other publications. A Massachusetts entrepreneur who publishes a game and puzzle mail-order catalogue called Bits & Pieces has bought the title and plans to revive Games, under the editorship of former editor Will Shortz, by late spring.

Former Games subscribers who still were owed issues by the previous publisher will have to swallow the loss. But the new publisher has the old subscription list and will be mailing them a subscription offer in the coming months. Steven A. Greenberg, Fame's owner, said no decision had been made between giving subscribers a cash refund or issues of another magazine; a spokesman for Forbes said it would offer Egg subscribers their choice of the two.