Likely Stories: Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Mar 24, 2016

Observations of a noted essayist who reflects with wit and charm on America in the 1960s.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies. 

Ages ago, a friend recommended Miami, an extended essay by Joan Didion, but 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 another chance. 

The first essay, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” tells the story of a woman accused of murdering her husband.  Joan began the essay with a description of San Bernardino, California, site of most of the story.  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).  I could not stop reading this 28-page essay. 

Among other interesting essays was a piece on 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 I can hear them, in another country and a long time later, even as I tell you this” (41). 

Finally, I would like to share the opening paragraph of the title essay for the collection.  Didion 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, Those 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 Joan Didion’s Slouching toward Bethlehem after an essay that began this way?  5 stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read my book blog at  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!