Book review: After Henry, by Joan Didion
There’s no other storyteller like Joan Didion. She can take the most boring fact and spin a narrative yarn around it that boggles the mind. She can tie so many elements together in telling a story and making a point about politics, culture, or the identity of a place that reading her essays feels like being schooled in an art. In this collection, she even manages to make topics like Hawaiian real estate of decades gone by interesting.
The titular Henry was Didion’s longtime trusted and beloved editor, who passed away relatively young and suddenly in the 14th street subway station in New York. He’d guided her so much, artistically and personally, that it was a significant moment for her to first publish after he was gone.
The intriguingly-titled “In the Realm of the Fisher King” looks at the Reagan administration years through the eyes and experience of Peggy Noonan, his speechwriter. She tells anecdotes that show the former President and First Lady in an honest, down-homey, mostly less than flattering light. The one about their experience attending a church and taking communion is priceless.
All of the essays are like time capsules, opening up to show richly described, detailed records of events that were major national current events of the time. The standout pieces for me were “Girl of the Golden West”, about the kidnapped Patty Hearst and how society viewed her when she returned from her Stockholm Syndrome-experience; and “Sentimental Journeys”, about the infamous Central Park jogger rape case and the miscarriage of justice that occurred.
This was of course written before 2002, when DNA made known that another man outside the group of convicted suspects was actually responsible for the crime, igniting another firestorm of controversy in an already contentious and hotly debated case. And yet Didion’s prose casts a suspicious eye over the entire situation and its greater cultural context, even without the benefit of this new evidence.
What I love most in reading her is the seemingly effortless beauty of her words, that she can tell something so emotional and evocative and touching in such a simple, aching way. It’s what brings me back over and over to another essay (not from this collection) “Goodbye to All That”.
That quality crops up throughout After Henry too, like in her describing speaking at her daughter’s school, telling when she knew she would be a writer – “…we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us as a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.”
Of course, in addition to that writerly richness, she also has her trademark brand of biting, acerbic wit that manages to paint a person or scene so vividly: “The airport looked Central American, between governments.”
Didion also has always had a fascinating ability to draw surprising but relevant parallels, and the best displayed here is the Patty Hearst essay, where she highlights the California background and connection of the kidnapped heiress with the emigrants who originally settled the West Coast state.
Quoting a letter from a surviving member of the Donner party and an emigrant diary entry from a relative of hers, she writes a mashed-up lesson learned from these distinct yet somehow linked events: Suffice it to say. Don’t examine your feelings, they’re no help at all. Never take no cutoffs and hurry along as fast as you can. We need a goddamn South American revolutionary mixed up in this thing like a hole in the head. This was a California girl, and she was raised on a history that placed not much emphasis on why. She was never an idealist, and this pleased no one. She was tainted by survival. She came back from the other side with a story no one wanted to hear.
She gives me chills.
A drawback of this often-overlooked collection is that some subjects feel dated, like observations on the 1988 presidential campaign of Michael Dukakis versus George Bush the first, or other pieces taking the political temperature of the country. Yet in “Sentimental Journeys”, she writes a piece so fresh and utterly relevant that it could be written today, that is being written by other authors about other incidents, where the names and locations and principle players have changed but the gist remain more or less the same, more than two decades on.
Didion has that knack for teasing out a tellable story from disturbing headlines, and After Henry shows what often powerful lasting effects those stories have.
by Joan Didion
new ebook edition published May 9, 2017 by Open Road Integrated Media; first published 1992
I received an advance copy of the new ebook edition courtesy of the publisher for review.