Slouching Towards Bethlehem

 

“We went there three and four afternoons a week, sat on folding chairs in the darkened Quonset hut which served as a theater, and it was there, that summer of 1943 while the hot wind blew outside, that I first saw John Wayne. Saw the walk, heard the voice. Heard him tell the girl in a picture called War of the Wildcats that he would build her a house, ‘at the bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.’ As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is the heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places I have come to love, they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow. Deep in that part of my heart where the artificial rain forever falls, that is still the line I wait to hear. 

 

I tell you this neither in a spirit of self-revelation nor as an exercise in total recall, but simply to demonstrate that when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams. It did not seem possible that such a man could fall ill, could carry within him that most inexplicable and ungovernable of diseases. The rumor struck some obscure anxiety, threw our very childhoods into question. In John Wayne’s world, John Wayne was supposed to give the orders. ‘Let’s ride,’ he said, and ‘Saddle up.’ ‘Forward ho,’ and ‘A man’s gotta do what he’s got to do.’ ‘Hello, there,’ he said when he first saw the girl, in a construction camp or on a train or just standing around on the front porch waiting for somebody to ride up through the tall grass. When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it. And in a world we understood early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world, one which may or may not have existed ever but in any case existed no more: a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it; a world in which, if a man did what he had to do, he could one day take the girl and go riding through the draw and find himself home free, not in a hospital with something going wrong inside, not in a high bed with the flowers and the drugs and the forced smiles, but there at the bend in the bright river, the cottonwoods shimmering in the early morning sun.”

John Wayne: A Love Song, 1965

 

 

“Miss Baez sat very still in the front row. She was wearing a long-sleeved navy-blue dress with an Irish lace collar and cuffs, and she kept her hands folded in her lap. She is extraordinary looking, far more so than her photographs suggest, since the camera seems to emphasize an Indian cast to her features and fails to record either the startling fineness and clarity of her bones and eyes or, her most striking characteristic, her absolute directness, her absence of guile. She has a great natural style, and she is what used to be called a lady. ‘Scum,’ hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie who had identified himself as ‘a veteran of two wars’ and who is a regular at such meetings. ‘Spaniel.’ he seemed to be referring to the length of Miss Baez’s hair, and was trying to get her attention by tapping with his walking stick, but her eyes did not flicker from the rostrum. After a while she got up, and stood until the room was completely quiet. Her opponents sat tensed, ready to spring up and counter whatever defense she was planning to make of her politics, of her school, of bears, of ‘Berkeley-type’ demonstrations and disorder in general. 

 

‘Everybody’s talking about their forty- and fifty-thousand-dollar houses and their property values going down,’ she drawled finally, keeping her clear voice low and gazing levelly at the supervision. ‘I’d just like to say one thing. I have more than one hundred thousand dollars invested in the Carmel Valley, and I’m interested in protecting my property too.’ The property owner smiled disingenuously at Dr and Mrs Petkuss then, and took her seat amid complete silence.'”

         Where the Kissing Never Stops, 1966

 

 

 

I’ve been reading Didion. She is a magician with words, an unbelievable storyteller. In the category of non-fiction prose, perhaps only Alan Bennett can compete with her for that spot in my heart, though his charm is of an entirely different kind.

I’m only sixty pages in, and already have the corners of about half of them folded. A book review is going to take a while, but I could not wait to share a couple of excerpts, which I had just read today, that absolutely enchanted my heart. I had to force myself to put down Didion because it was too much fun to be work (subsequently picked up a history on the Enlightenment, which effectively made my eye lids heavy after thirty minutes – definitely work).

To me, the other special thing about Didion and the handful of pieces I am currently reading, is her life and their settings in California. Berkeley, San Francisco, Haight and Ashbury in the 60’s were central to Slouching Towards Bethlehem. So this has been a peek into the past of things dear to my heart, a biased peek undoubtedly, but captivating all the same.

The best writers never tell, do they? They show. They paint with words. They lure you into their schemes and worlds, enchant you with their passion and craft, until you surrender your better judgement and bow wholeheartedly before their majesties. I fell in love with John Wayne, right there. I became a fan of Miss Baez, right there. I’m glad to know that they once existed, even if only in Didion’s world, and in Didion’s ways.

 

(Featured Image: Berkeley, CA at nightfall in Spring 2015)

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