Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.
— Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
A collection of well-crafted essays by Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is like going through the looking glass and landing in 1960’s California. It is a time capsule, a love letter, and a history lesson rolled into one. Joan’s writing style is engaging, and it is obvious that she is an expert in her craft.
I cannot analyze and cover off every essay here, and others have done a far better job at it than I. Some I liked more than others and so I’ll give a brief summary of what I liked and why.
Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream
A sort of criticism of the San Bernadino valley and 60’s suburban culture, wherein a woman having an affair decides to kill her husband, and ends up inadvertently burning him to death inside a Volkswagen. She is by no means a master criminal, and is soon caught and convicted, admitting the crime. Joan’s skill at journalism shows through here as well, and the authenticity of the story is drawn from interviews, court sittings, and phone calls with the parties involved. It reminded me of In Cold Blood, though a little more absurd.
John Wayne: A Love Song
I liked this one because it involved Joan Didion hanging out with John Wayne and Dean Martin as the men and various other hangers on were on the set of Wayne’s 165th movie. It dwells on Wayne’s masculinity and mythic image. Stories of these old 50’s and 60’s entertainers always fascinate me; this one was no exception.
A look into the strange world of Las Vegas weddings and why they became so popular despite their tackiness (no blood test or waiting period required!)
On Going Home and Notes From A Native Daughter
A history lesson and rumination on the places Joan Didion grew up and called home – the area around Sacramento. It reads as partly a memoir and a tapestry of California culture and origins.
I have not yet read East of Eden (Update: I read East of Eden and loved it!) though from what I understand it talks about similar areas, so I am keen to read that later this year.
Letter from Paradise 21° 19’ N, 157° 52’ W
An essay about Hawaii and the impact of Pearl Harbour years later. I found this one interesting because Didion writes about the men who died at Pearl Harbour, then in the Pacific Theatre and Vietnam after that. They are buried in a place called Punchbowl Crater, at the National Memorial Cemetary of the Pacific. Didion talks about the cheapening of their sacrifice by the locals bringing tourists in there, and the sailors at the current naval base’s proclivities for the red light districts.
Rock of Ages
Exploring the Ruins of Alcatraz and the few people that still live in that solitary island fortress. Deemed too expensive to run in the 60’s, it eventually became a target for real estate developers and city planners looking to turn a notorious place that once held Al Capone into a gentrified place.
In general I preferred the stories about Joan’s own past, and the general historical based essays and slice of life stories. What I couldn’t relate to were the stories of the counter-culture movement, especially the eponymous essay Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The people involved seemed insufferable, though parallels could be drawn to the movements young people attach to today. I couldn’t dig it.
This was my first time reading a collection of essays, and I am glad I chose someone as articulate and engrossing as Joan Didion to start with.