After Henry by Joan Didion
Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1992
Genre: Essays, non-fiction
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: I will probably give this one a read again in the next few years.
Reviewed by Indiana
After Henry was not what I expected.
Looking back, I’m not quite sure why I didn’t expect it but I just didn’t. It’s a collection of essays written after friend and editor Henry Robbins passed away.
“ . . . but it came down to this: he wanted me to know that I could do it without him. That was a third thing Henry told me that I did not believe,” writes Didion. Robbins became a huge part of her books, from helping her name Play It As It Lays to guiding her to use the second-person perspective in A Book of Common Prayer.
After that first essay, talking all about Robbins, I assumed (wrongly) that the rest of the book would be framed by him. And in a way it was, but not to the extent that she talked about Robbins in every essay.
There were some beautifully in-depth pieces about the Los Angeles Times and about fire season in California and the sense that Californians have that this is just how life is (“These leaflets, which are stuck up on refrigerator doors all over Los Angeles County, never say ‘if.’ When the fire comes, there will be no water pressure.”).
She gave a unique look into the Central Park jogger case of 1989. For those who don’t know, a New York woman was nearly beaten to death (she lost 75 percent of her blood, her skull had been crushed, she had been raped, etc.) when she went for a run in Central Park New York. Didion dares to ask the question: why was this case one of the biggest most “newsworthy” case?
Reporters, politicians, people on the city streets, everyone was talking about it.
Yet, similar things happened to others frequently. People got jumped and stabbed, raped, and worse nearly every day at that time.
As Didion writes, “Later it would be recalled that 3,254 other rapes were reported that year, including one the following week involving the near decapitation of a black woman . . . but the point was rhetorical, since crimes are universally understood to be news to the extent that they offer, however erroneously, a story, a lesson, a high concept.”
What made the jogger case “different” was that the young woman represented a new wave of up and coming young professionals, which the city was trying to draw in at the time. The headlines described her as young, attractive, and ambitious. A decade earlier, the city had lost over 600,000 jobs, due to manufacturing moving out and small businesses moving out too. Needless to say, the big wigs were trying to entice people like the jogger to come live and work in the city.
Throughout the piece, Didion gets into the history of black men being accused of raping white women, of rape victims feeling the need to be silent, and crime in New York. But she does perhaps the most Didion-thing of all by describing the atmosphere and attitude of the city in one sentence:
“It was only within the transforming narrative of ‘contrasts’ that both the essential criminality of the city and its related absence of civility could become points of pride, evidence of ‘energy’: if you could make it here you could make it anywhere, hello sucker, get smart.”