The Books: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’, by Joan Didion

Moving on from the Hollywood shelf to what I call my Essay shelf. First up, is the Joan Didion section. She is one of my favorite writers of all time.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a famous collection of essays, most of which had been previously published elsewhere, in The Saturday Evening Post and other places, and is one of her most famous collections (although The White Album is right up there too).

Here is how Joan Didion came to me. I was working at an internet start-up in the heady days pre-Internet-Bubble-Crash of the late 90s. I was a freelance programmer for their AOL platform and I made crazy money. Money I could never make today. Money like that no longer exists. I worked 20 hours a week and fully supported myself, with room to spare, with my part-time paychecks. I was in grad school. The people who worked at this office were intelligent and eccentric and fun, and the whole thing had a revolutionary and dorm-room feel to it. There were beanbag chairs. The lights were low. I sat next to a guy whose nickname was “Pat the Rat”, and as we both hunched over our computers, he would reach out and play with my ear lobe. He liked the feel of it. We would sit there for hours, doing our work, as he massaged my ear lobe. In that environment, this behavior wasn’t strange at all. This start-up had been bought by New Line Cinema, so money was pouring in, and although there was a huge corporate connection, we were still the weirdos in the metaphorical basement wearing Converse sneakers and throwing darts at the walls to blow off steam. Jobs like that exploded in the mid-90s. I had to turn down work. I met people at that crazy job I am still friends with today. One of the women I met, Rebecca, who is still a friend today, asked me if I had ever read an essay by Joan Didion called “Goodbye to All That”. Rebecca and I had been talking about our lives in New York, our boyfriends, our other dreams, why we were in New York in the first place, and how it was we both came to be working at this crazy Internet start-up. And … when would our lives begin? Or had they begun? It was a strange static no-mans-land, the mid 90s, when there was insane money to be made doing basically NOTHING, grunt work, for big big money, and everyone who worked at that place had other dreams, dreams that brought them to New York in the first place. They were photographers, they were in bands, they were writers, artists, dancers. We were keeping ourselves afloat, keeping our other dreams alive, by huddling over computers messing with code and launching content. Before the mid 90s, to make money we signed up with temp offices and answered phones in banks and financial institutions. Or we waited tables. Or worked minimum wage jobs. But suddenly, there was a wealth of opportunity in Internet startups for weirdos like us. Looking back, it was all very surreal, but I suppose it was surreal at the time, too, and that is what Rebecca and I were talking about. And that is why she brought up Joan Didion’s famous essay about her decision to leave New York, “Goodbye to All That”.

I had not read it. Rebecca gave me a Xeroxed copy of it.

An odd coincidental dovetail: Rebecca was friends with Allison (I did not know her yet at the time, although we would soon become the best of friends, and remain so to this day), and Allison was the one who gave “Goodbye to All That” to Rebecca to read. And then Rebecca passed it on to me. The fact that it was Allison, unknown to me at the time, who, by one degree of association, introduced me to that essay, is just perfect, and kind of an example of the small-world that New York really is.

I read the essay quickly and it blew the top of my head off. It actually was so powerful that I have only read it two or three times since then, because I need to be ready for it. I need to gear up for the implications, gear up for the fact that it will call into question my own choices. It’s that good. It seemed to speak directly into my experience at that moment, and not only that, but it captured a certain quality of New York that may only be comprehensible to those who live here, to those who live here but who have not been born here, who come here specifically to follow a dream, and who sweat it out in the trenches in their late 20s, early 30s. It’s very specific.

So that was my start with Joan Didion. I have since read everything she has ever written. Well, I haven’t read her latest book, about the death of her daughter, but I will.

“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a phenomenal collection, vast in scope. One of the interesting things about my own experience with Didion is that because the first essay of hers I read was so quintessentially New York-based, I always thought of her as a New Yorker. She always admitted she was a transplant, she was a native Californian (a strange and interesting breed of person), but her understanding of New York and her uncanny ability to describe its beauty and pain and ache, always made me think of her as an East Coast girl. Perhaps it is because she was not from New York that she was able to describe it so accurately. There is something to that fresh outsider’s perspective. If you move to New York to follow a dream, then New York is not a city. It is a symbol of your dreams. It lives in the imagination of people who have never even been here. You don’t have to have visited Paris to have an idea of it in your head. New York is that kind of city too. One of the funnest things for me, in delving into her work, was reading all of her California stuff (she wrote an entire book about California), because it is so foreign to me (I only visit California, I always feel like a tourist there, despite my family connections out there). She wrote about the freeways, she wrote one brilliant essay about water in California, she writes about crime, she writes about drugs. And one of the things I love so much about her writing is how deep it goes. She writes about surface events, but you always sense Didion, the questioner, the philosopher, drilling down to find out what is really going on.

What is it in a culture, a landscape, a time and place, that makes people do the things they do?

The first essay in Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a perfect example. “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” was originally published in The Saturday Evening Post with the chilling title “How Can I tell Them There’s Nothing Left”.

It tells the story of a murder trial in the San Bernardino Valley. A young housewife gets in a car accident with her husband who burns up in the car while she screams for help, to no avail. She is arrested a day or so later for murder. It comes out she had been having an affair. She is convicted of murder. She is pregnant at the time, and delivers her baby while in prison.

Didion starts the whole thing with a contemplation of the San Bernardino Valley, delving into the history of the place, and why people move there, and what it is about the landscape, the air, the wind, the heat, that may impact the culture of the area. She provides context for where we will be going. It is, yes, a Didion context. She makes broad statements, out of her own knowledge of Califrornia, and to Didion – a cigar is rarely just a cigar. Everything comes from somewhere, every small element has an impact on other elements. She sees something in this particular murder trial which is, on the face of it, rather banal. A dime a dozen.

To her, though, it is a California story, through and through.

Here’s an excerpt.

Excerpt from Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (FSG Classics), by Joan Didion

In some ways it was the conventional clandestine affair in a place like San Bernardino, a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed. Over the seven weeks that it would take to try Lucille Miller for murder, Assistant District Attorney Don A. Turner and defense attorney Edward P. Foley would between them unfold a curiously predictable story. There were the falsified motel registrations. There were the lunch dates, the afternoon drives in Arthwell Hayton’s red Cadillac convertible. There were the interminable discussions of the wronged partners. There were the confidantes (“I know everything,” Sandy Slagle would insist fiercely later. “I know every time, places, everything”) and there were the words remembered from bad magazine stories (“Don’t kiss me, it will trigger things,” Lucille Miller remembered telling Arthwell Hayton in the parking lot of Harold’s Club in Fontana after lunch one day) and there were the notes, the sweet exchanges: “Hi Sweetie Pie! You are my cup of tea!! Happy Birthday – you don’t look a day over 29!! Your baby, Arthwell.”

And, toward the end, there was the acrimony. It was April 24, 1964, when Arthwell Hayton’s wife, Elaine, died suddenly, and nothing good happened after that. Arthwell Hayton had taken his cruiser, Captain’s Lady, over to Catalina that weekend; he called home at nine o’clock Friday night, but did not talk to his wife because Lucille Miller answered the telephone and said that Elaine was showering. The next morning the Haytons’ daughter found her mother in bed, dead. The newspapers reported the death as accidental, perhaps the result of an allergy to hair spray. When Arthwell Hayton flew home from Catalina that weekend, Lucille Miller met him at the airport, but the finish had already been written.

It was in the breakup that the affair ceased to be in the conventional mode and began to resemble instead the novels of James M. Cain, the movies of the late 1930’s, all the dreams in which violence and threats and blackmail are made to seem commonplace of middle-class life. What was most startling about he case that the State of California was preparing against Lucille Miller was something that had nothing to do with law at all, something that never appeared in the eight-column afternoon headlines but was always there between them: the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live. Here is Lucille Miller talking to her lover sometime in the early summer of 1964, after he had indicated that, on the advice of his minister, he did not intend to see her any more: “First, I’m going to go to that dear pastor of yours and tell him a few things . . . . When I do tell him that, you won’t be in the Redlands Church any more . . . . Look, Sonny Boy, if you think your reputation is going to be ruined, your life won’t be worth two cents.” Here is Arthwell Hayton, to Lucille Miller: “I’ll go to Sheriff Frank Bland and tell him some things that I know about you until you’ll wish you’d never heard of Arthwell Hayton.” For an affair between a Seventh-Day Adventist dentist’s wife and a Seventh-Day Adventist personal-injury laser, it seems a curious kind of dialogue.

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4 Responses to The Books: Slouching Towards Bethlehem: ‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream’, by Joan Didion

  1. jennchez says:

    I have been a huge Didion fan ever since I read “The Year of Magical Thinking”. I know I’ve entered late into the game but ever piece of hers that I have read has sucked me in like a tidal wave, and I feel the after effects for a time. This book of essays I have never read though, but it is on my list of must-reads.

    Yes we Californias are a different breed, Northern and Southern CA are almost 2 seperate states really. Southern is more about who’s who, fake boobs and my Rolex cost more than yours. Us Northerners’ are more your bookish, artistic, tree hugger types :) Between the North and South we are our own breed. BTW that meant no offense to the southerns, I know many that are nothing like what I wrote about above and mean no offense at all. I think thats why our state is so special :)

  2. sheila says:

    Jennchez – I love California, and am particularly interested in native Californians – people who have lived there for generations. I have a couple of new friends in that categroy,and their whole take on California is just so interesting!

    I have really enjoyed Didion’s California essays and the whole book devoted to it (called Where I Was From) – as a Californian, I bet you’ll find it very interesting!

    And man, I agree – even her shorter essays pack a huge wallop.

    “Goodbye to All That” – I read it at a time in my life when the bloom was still on the rose in terms of living in New York – it would take me another 5, 6 years to reach the point she reached in the essay. Although I suppose I never really reached it, since I am still here. But boy, that essay captures something important. It’s almost unbearable.

    But I love her reportage stuff, too. Her personal essays are great, but I definitely love it when she goes off to cover murder trials or water board meetings. She’s just so great. Scary great.

  3. allison bennett says:

    Never before and never since has any single piece of writing impacted me the way “Goodbye to all That”…it lives inside me. Isn’t it funny that this happened to indirectly be our first point of connection? So fitting, so right.

    • sheila says:

      Allison – I know. I just love it!

      Oh, and I finished that Jonestown book this morning. It took me less than 24 hours to plow through it. Horrifying, and very well done.

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