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AFTER HENRY by Joan Didion Kirkus Star


by Joan Didion

Pub Date: May 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0679745394
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Didion's latest collection of previously published articles--her first since The White Album (1979)--reminds us that she's truly one of the premier essayists of our time. For all the disconnectedness she discerns throughout our public life, her prose, in its very complexity, beautifully plays against her subjects. In these pieces, mostly from The New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, Didion artfully points out the "chasm" between "actual life and its preferred narratives." Organized by place (Washington, D.C.; L.A.; New York), these carefully structured essays help define the culture of our cities, which is otherwise distorted by self-reference and a complicit media. Writing about Reagan-era tell-all books, Didion recasts the Great Communicator as the Fisher King, the keeper of the right-revolutionary grail. On the 1988 campaign trail, she watches a moveable "set," a series of staged events that reveal "contempt for outsiders" (i.e., average citizens). In California, Didion documents the "protective detachment" that's become part of the frontier legacy. Patty Hearst's survival instinct makes her a typical West Coast girl, as pragmatic as those who live with earthquake jitters. Narrative conflict emerges in Didion's account of the 1988 Screen Guild writers' strike, during which the industry's hierarchy reasserted itself. Likewise, the L.A. mayoral race of 1989 exposed the class and race struggles that everyone in that city would rather ignore. The longest piece here concerns the Central Park Jogger, "a sacrificial player in the sentimental narrative that is New York public life." Like her essay on the "Cotton Club" murder, this stunning bit of mete-analysis proves Didion's contention that every crime--to be of larger interest--needs "a story, a lesson, a high concept." When the theoretical clashes with the empirical, she says, narrative takes over, distorting, transforming, ameliorating. For Didion, truth is in the details, arranged so precisely in her seemingly candid prose. A collection to savor by a stylist in top form.