Joan Didion's `Reality Check'

JOAN DIDION is like one of those friends whose insights one seeks out not in expectation of good news but because one trusts them to provide a reality check, a cool analysis unafraid of hurt feelings.

In "After Henry," a collection of essays reprinted from The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and (the now defunct) New West, she provides a reality check on several events of recent American history, such as the 1988 political campaign and the 1989 Central Park jogger rape case and subsequent trials. She also reports on the continuing California dramas of earthquakes and the fire season, as well as the general alienation that seems to be a part of her Los Angeles. ("A good part of any day in Los

Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease." )

The book takes its title from the opening piece, a tribute to Henry Robbins, her editor, first at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and then at Simon & Schuster from 1966 until his death in 1979. "What editors do for writers is mysterious, and does not, contrary to general belief, have much to do with titles and sentences and `changes.' ... The editor, if the editor was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writers the idea of himself, the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down

alone and do it."

She remembers the last time she saw him, two months before his sudden death: "What he told me that night was indirect, and involved implicit allusions to other people and other commitments and everything that had happened among us since that summer night in 1966, but it came down to this: he wanted me to know that I could do it without him."

There is a vulnerability in her admitting that she needs such support; she was, after all, an established writer, if not exactly a household name, by this point. But the vulnerability of writers generally is a theme that runs through the book. In her account of the five-month strike by the Writers Guild of America in 1988, she relates an episode in which she was a working reporter at the Democratic National Convention in July of that year without her own floor pass. She ran into film director Paul Mazurs ky, who, like the other movie industry people at the convention, did have his own pass, more out of professional prestige than necessity.

When she asked him to lend her his pass, he "would, he said, `really like' to do this for me, but thought not. He seemed surprised that I had asked, and uncomfortable that I had breached the natural order of the community as we both knew it: directors and actors and producers, I should have understood, have floor passes. Writers do not, which is why they strike."

The vulnerability of writers seems to be in Didion's world another sign of the vulnerability of truth itself before the "narratives" that are continually presented - in political campaigns, for instance. A controversial oil drilling project comes down to a contest between Greed vs. Slow Growth and The People vs. the (liberal, possibly elitist) West Side.

"Neither version was long on nuance, and both tended to overlook facts that did not support the favored angles ... but the two scenarios ... continued to provide ... a kind of narrative line. The election would fall, as these people saw it, to whoever told his story best, to whoever had the best tellers, the best fixers."

Didion is not exactly the reporter-center-stage, as are some celebrity journalists; one gathers that she collects her more interesting material by being an understated, nonthreatening presence before the people she is talking with, so that they say more than they intend to. But she is always there in the story. She makes a depressing case for New York City as a third-world city with such a crime problem that even the most privileged have stopped feeling safe, and one wonders: If that's how she sees it, w ho is forcing her to live there? This is a line of thought that doesn't occur to one reading, say, a crime story in the New York Times.

Elsewhere in the book there appears a discussion of Los Angeles real-estate prices in 1988 in which the "going price of `anything at all' " was pegged at a million dollars and the price of "something decent" pegged at two million.

Reading this, one remembers that a few pages earlier, Didion had told of putting her own house on the market during this period and getting, within two hours, three offers, "one of them for appreciably more than the asking price." All this in a larger context of "how well" Los Angeles "works." Adam Smith would be proud. Didion may be more of the establishment than she gives herself credit for.

Of the book's three major divisions, "Washington," "California," and "New York," the middle one is the strongest, rooted as it is in her understanding of the history of the place and her concrete reporting: the activities of the seismologists, the calculation of the "burn index" used to assess the likelihood of brush fire. California can seem an artificial place, but there is no denying the directness with which the existential elements of earthquake, wind, and fire present themselves there.

Much of "After Henry" was already familiar pleasure to this reviewer; Didion writes the kind of sentences one remembers years after first reading them, and then rereads for sheer delight in the language.

Occasionally, though, she writes a sentence that has to be reread for the reader to be sure of subject and verb, and to understand subplots lurking within parentheses.

She lets her interlocutors hang themselves with the twisted ropes of their own syntax: "We would be rather disappointed if, having supported him, he were inaccessible to us," she quotes a prominent real-estate developer who has long supported Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

The world according to Didion is not exactly the sort of place from which one sends "Wish you were here" postcards, but the reader is enlightened for having sojourned there.

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