Saturday, February 13, 2016

Slouching toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Ages ago, a friend recommended Miami, an extended essay by Joan Didion.  Try as I might, I could not keep my mind on the text.  Something about the style drove me away.  A page from my daily Book Lovers Calendar, a comment from my wife, and a book that had fallen behind a shelf all conspired to my reading Didion’s acclaimed book of essays, Slouching toward Bethlehem.  I decided to give her one more chance. 

The first essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” tells the story of a woman accused of murdering her husband, who, apparently, suffered from depression and other ailments and wanted to die.  Joan began the essay with a description of San Bernardino, California, site of most of the story, when Lucille Miller visited a 24-hour minimart.  She writes, “…on the night of October 7, 1964, […] the moon was dark and the wind was blowing and she was out of milk, and Banyan Street was where, at about 12:30 a.m., her 1964 Volkswagen came to a sudden stop, caught fire, and began to burn.  For an hour and fifteen minutes Lucille Miller ran up and down Banyan Street calling for help, but no cars passed and no help came.  At three o’clock that morning, when the fire had been put out and the California Highway Patrol officers were completing their report, Lucille Miller was still sobbing and incoherent, for her husband had been asleep in the Volkswagen.  ‘What will I tell the children, when there’s nothing left, nothing left in the casket,’ she cried to the friend called to comfort her.  ‘How can I tell them there’s nothing left?’” (6).  Quite a story, but as Didion unwinds the tale, numerous pieces of evidence do not add up.  Miller ends up in the San Bernardino County Jail charged with first degree murder.  I could not stop reading this 28-page essay. 

Other essays involved a portrait of John Wayne, whom Didion admired since she was a child.  Eventually, she meets the Duke and recounts dinner at an exclusive restaurant with her husband, when suddenly three men appeared playing guitars.  She writes, “…all the while the men with the guitars kept playing, until finally I realized what they had been playing, what they had been playing all along: ‘The Red River Valley’ and the theme from The High and the Mighty.  They did not quite get the beat right, but even now can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this” (41).  I have met a few people I really admired, John Updike, John Cheever, and Joyce carol Oates to name a few, and I can vividly recall the time, the place, and the topics we discussed.

Finally, I would like to share the opening paragraph of the title essay for the collection.  Dion writes, “The center was not holding.  It was a country of bankruptcy notices and public-auction announcements and commonplace reports of casual killings and misplaced children and abandoned homes and vandals who misspelled even the four-letter words they scrawled.  It was a country in which families routinely disappeared, trailing bad checks and repossession papers.  Adolescents drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.  People were missing.  Parents were missing, Thos left behind filed desultory missing-persons reports, then moved on themselves. // 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 cold late spring of 1967” (84).  How could I not continue reading an essay that began this way. 

I think I see another visit to Joan Didion’s Miami in my near future.  5 stars

--Chiron, 2/2/16

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