Didion's `Miami' and multiple realities

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Miami, by Joan Didion. New York: Simon & Schuster. 208 pp; indexed. $17.95. A book that appropriates as its title the name of a whole city can seem somewhat presumptuous. We each have our own Miami, or New York, or wherever, our own version of whatever cities we've known.

This divergence of multiple realities is particularly apparent in Joan Didion's Miami, where, she suggests, anything resembling concrete fact is likely to be washed away in a tropical rainstorm, and where, specifically, the Anglo city is almost unrecognizable to the Cuban community, and vice versa.

She writes of Anglos who regard the presence of the Cubans as ``a civic challenge determinedly met.'' She tells of Cubans baffled by the utter lack of passion with which Anglos seem to deal with each other, as epitomized by the discussions on Ted Koppel's ``Nightline.''

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Here Miami the city, the ``rich and wicked pastel boomtown,'' is the elaborate stage set for ``Miami'' the story of the relationship between the Cuban exiles and the larger American society.

The Kennedy administration, generally remembered today in the golden glow of ``Camelot,'' is seen through a completely different lens from the perspective of Didion's ``Miami.'' John Kennedy has been widely praised for publicly accepting blame for the Bay of Pigs disaster.

But within the exile community, his decision to abandon on the beach in Cuba those who would have overthrown Castro made John Kennedy the ``second most hated man in Miami'' - after Castro himself.

The White House tactic to control damage vis-`a-vis the Miami-based leaders of the invading forces was to fly them to Washington to meet the President and hear him speak ``slowly and thoughtfully'' - Arthur Schlesinger's phrase - about the struggle against communism and ``eventual'' freedom for Cuba. ``I had never seen the President more impressive,'' Schlesinger later wrote in ``A Thousand Days.''

The Cubans, Didion suggests, heard it differently. ``The recitative of seduction and betrayal from which Miami took its particular tone was in a key Washington failed then to hear, and does still.''

In the years since, Cuban exiles have had bit parts in many of the more bizarre stories to come out of Washington, such as the Watergate burglary. The tension continues between the Cuban community, for which the quest to overthrow Castro is the central reality, and Washington, full of people for whom Latin America is but one of many ``issues'' on the agenda, to be played up or down as the public mood seems to dictate. It is a tension between the believers in a passionately embraced ``truth'' and the managers of manipulated media ``images.''

And the possibility that the Reagan administration may end up being to Nicaragua what the Kennedy administration proved to be to Cuba is clearly suggested.

It can be hard to know quite how to take the disquieting nihilism in much of Didion's work. There is something almost unreal about her story. But then there has been something almost unreal about the foreign policy adventures of the later Reagan administration years, which figure so prominently in this book. The dramatic turns of the Iran-contra drama have at times seemed like something dreamed up by an overwrought night editor somewhere. Figures from one news story have suddenly popped up in another, as if transposed there by a typesetting computer run amok.

Didion is just the writer for this story. She has an excellent eye for detail, a sense of the phrase or image that tells the whole story. Indeed, her style is so distinctive that she sometimes teeters on the edge of self-parody. Occasional sentences go on and on, like a high note held after it has become uncomfortable for the listener, if not the singer.

She clearly does her homework. This relatively slender volume is obviously based on reams of research, distilled like fragrance from whole fields of blossoms.

``Miami'' is an insightful book illustrating the dangers both of overzealous ideological engagement and of moral disengagement. To one who reads it, the discussion of United States policy in Latin America will never be quite the same again.

Ruth Walker is an editorial writer with the Monitor.

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