It was my mother, of all people, who introduced me to Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem. This was in the early summer of 1980, when I was not quite nineteen and living, first with two friends and later by myself, in a studio apartment on Haight Street in San Francisco. My next-door neighbor was a jovial ex-biker turned dope dealer who shared his studio with a (very) young wife and a fifteen-year-old runaway. Downstairs lived a guitar player who had once jammed with the Grateful Dead. I was taking a year off between high school and college, and Haight Street was my own little slice of hippie paradise, rundown and edgy in ways that seemed glamorous to me.
Then as now, the streets of the District were populated by a motley crew of burnouts: street kids with rucksacks and rasta caps, and squatters living in the abandoned buildings on Masonic who came down to panhandle in front of Uganda Liquors. I was an outsider—a kind of cultural tourist, living in San Francisco for six months before returning to the regulated world I’d always known—and there was something about their hand-to-mouth existence that I allowed myself to believe was authentic, even free.
For my mother, I see now, this was a dangerous narrative. That the Haight was already dead, in the early summer of 1980, was beside the point; it was not the present that interested me. I was more concerned with the idea of recapturing something. It wasn’t that I was ignorant. I understood what I thought to be the larger story, the way a romantic movement—the Haight of the early-to-mid-1960s—had been co-opted by the mainstream, a corruption so profound it had inspired the Diggers to stage a “Death of Hippie” funeral procession on Haight Street in October 1967.
I had read Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. I knew the revolution had failed. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, published in 1971, Thompson offered his own elegy for the era: “So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
And yet I observed the scene around me with no sense of context, no idea of what it meant. It was during my time in San Francisco that Ronald Reagan won the Republican nomination for president, and I can still recall watching his acceptance speech on television in a friend’s apartment near the Marina, reacting as if it had not been the obvious outcome all along. When I think back on the moment, it is always with a pinprick of self-loathing for not having recognized Reagan as the inevitable reaction, the symbolic counterweight, to the hippie myth. That, of course, is another story. What’s important is that I didn’t know enough.
As it happens, this is precisely the point of Slouching Towards Bethlehem—both the collection and the long title piece, which recounts the author’s experience in Haight-Ashbury in the weeks and months leading up to the Summer of Love. Published in 1968, this collection of magazine pieces is, on the most basic level, a reaction to its moment. Yet that is no longer where its power resides. Now we are drawn to its peculiar sense of cultural dissolution, which Didion weaves relentlessly through every piece.
Even at eighteen, I knew the Yeats poem from which she takes her title, and which she quotes in its entirety as an epigraph. “Things fall apart,” Yeats writes, “the centre cannot hold.” And, a few lines down: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” This is what caused my mother to press Slouching Towards Bethlehem on me. “Read the Haight-Ashbury essay,” she repeated, her voice a little urgent over the long-distance wires, as if conveying a cautionary tale. And why not? For her, that’s exactly what it was: a portrait not just of the dangerous territory in which, she feared, her son was treading, but also of the breakdown of a certain set of shared assumptions, a certain narrative.