Slouching Towards Bethlehem is Joan Didion’s first collection of non-fiction writing. It consists of some of the best prose written about the contemporary world.
Initially, I was hesitant to pick up this book because I thought the essays would be dated or as difficult to read as Sontag’s. But I was disabused of this notion right after the first essay itself.
The majority of the essays are about Didion’s home state, California. The writing is tight and scrappy. I would say that the work of Joan Didion is not simply “prose”, it is art. It is timeless, heartwrenching, and Hemingway crisp.
Much of the book takes place in Haight-Ashbury in 1967. Here, Didion hung out with acidheads and people who have run away to do drugs (Haight had been famous for that). Joan hung out and befriended a lot of hippies whose stories give a dark side to the counterculture movement.
There are the couple Deadye and Gerry who do not know where Chicago is. There are Jeff and his 15-year old girlfriend Debbie who have run away from home. There’s a 5-year old named Susan who does LSD and is in “High” Kindergarten. Didion is intimately involved with these people and runs a personal risk reporting the stories:
“We drink some more green tea and talk about going up to Malakoff Diggings in Nevada County because some people are starting a commune there and Max thinks it would be a groove to take acid in the diggings. He said maybe we could go next week, or the week after, or anyway sometime before his case comes up. Almost everyone I meet in San Francisco has to go to court at some point in the middle future. I never ask why.”
There’s an essay about marriage in Las Vegas that I found particularly intriguing:
“All of these services, like most others in Las Vegas (sauna baths, payroll-check cashing, chinchilla coats for sale or rent) are offered twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, presumably on the premise that marriage, like craps, is a game to be played when the table seems hot.”
My favorite essay however is “Goodbye to all that” that you can read for free here. It is about Didion’s time in New York and how she came to despise the city before finally moving to Los Angeles. There are snippets of Saturday afternoon parties and sensory details that are impossible to forget.
“I talk about how difficult it would be for us to “afford” to live in New York right now, about how much “space” we need, All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire. We stayed ten days, and then we took an afternoon flight back to Los Angeles, and on the way home from the airport that night I could see the moon on the Pacific and smell jasmine all around and we both knew that there was no longer any point in keeping the apartment we still kept in New York.”
[This loving and despising of New York is also what author Cheryl Strayed (Dear Sugar) experienced. She writes about it in her wonderful book Tiny Beautiful Things.]
There’s a strong and unapologetic “I” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem that Didion uses liberally. She’s having breakdowns at various points and there are parts of the story that include her intimately, and not from a distance. This also changes the stance of the book from journalism to creative non-fiction.
I enjoyed reading this book. But it wasn’t devoid of shortcomings.
Shortcomings of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”
Didion is one of my favorite non-fiction writers. But this book has some strong shortcomings that you need to be aware of whilst you read this book:
1. No Standard Journalism: As personal as Didion’s account is of Haight-Ashbury, it doesn’t hold well against journalism standards. There is no “real” interview or reporting. The cops don’t talk to Didion. “Diggers”, who ran a welfare agency for hippies at that time, also do not communicate with Didion and call her work “media poisoning” designed to show the counterculture in an evil light.
2. Difficult to wade through objectively: The use of “I” is strong in Slouching Towards Bethlehem. This makes the line between objective and subjective blur and what readers often witness is a judgment rather than a situation unbiased. It is difficult to determine if the work is a journalistic essay or a memoir.
I would definitely recommend you read this book, especially if you enjoy non-fiction. The writing style is worth it. But remember to take the facts with a pinch of salt (it isn’t an objective eye). And remember to skip through the essays that seem dated.
Find this book on Amazon here.