(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

If jacket copy were to be believed, then Miami is Joan Didion’s “most insightful nonfiction to date.” To disagree is not, however, to disparage this, Didion’s fourth book of journalism in twenty years and second piece of extended reportage (Salvador, 1983, having been her first). Didion’s standard as a practitioner of what, thanks to Tom Wolfe, has come to be called the New Journalism is invariably of the highest, and so to rank her non-fiction on the basis of degree of insight seems beside the point. It is to draw a distinction where none is possible. More appropriately, one could simply describe Miami as Didion’s longest piece of reportage to date and, more important, the densest. (As always, the density of Didion’s prose appears anomalous given the spareness of her bare-bones style, which appears less an imitation of Ernest Hemingway’s than the distillation of its very essence.) Her book comprises a labyrinth of disturbing facts, portraits, quotes, names, dates, and surmises designed to lead the Prufrockian reader to those overwhelming questions concerning both the Cubans in Miami and the politicians in Washington that he would undoubtedly prefer not be asked, let alone answered. Didion does ask the questions, does assemble the necessary data—doing a formidable amount of research: reading books, checking newspaper files, conducting private interviews, attending social functions—and does follow where the trails of data lead, negotiating the maze of facts in order to draw conclusions which seem as inevitable as they are disturbing. Given the convolutions inherent in her subject, her achievement is nothing less than extraordinary. Given the level of violence that has surrounded the affairs of the Cuban “exiles” in Miami, her achievement is nothing less than courageous. Written by a woman who has little faith in government as the key to progress, Miami should be considered required reading for all who naïvely believe in the political process and the government policies sanctioned by that process—and for those who, with equal naïvete, believe themselves beyond such concerns.

Didion’s is a tale of two equally deluded cities. The one is Miami. The other is not Havana, as one might expect in reading a book about Cuban exiles, but instead Washington, D.C. It is a lurid tale of seduction and betrayal—past, present, and future—in which Washington has played the part of the seducer and the Cubans the damsel whose distress makes her an easy prey for the seducer’s false promises. Yet to simplify the tale in such fashion is to miss the point, for the real villain in Didion’s piece is neither Washington nor the Cubans but that quality which the two have shared throughout the quarter century of their mutual fascination: their capacity for—indeed, their complicity in—replacing fact with fiction, reality with their respectively favored delusions, a word that Didion uses in the clinical sense as referring to fixed, dominant, or persistent false mental conceptions that resist reason. The Washington-Miami (meaning Cuban Miami) connection is focused less on cooperation in pursuit of a common political goal than on the convergence of their separate fantasies.

Didion’s method in describing this “collision” is, as the title of her second novel puts it, to “play it as it lays,” to present things as they are, to allow the facts to speak for themselves. Yet even as she does so, Didion paradoxically inserts herself into her journalistic narrative, so that the reader comes to understand not only her bewildered efforts to negotiate the maze, but also her complicity in the story she tells and her willingness to take responsibility for the judgments she makes about the very reality that the fantasists in Miami and in Washington manage to avoid so completely.

That Miami’s Cuban population and its particular delusion should appeal to Didion ought not to be surprising, for in the early 1960’s, she wrote an essay entitled “Comrade Laski, CPUSA.” In it, even as she made clear her skepticism toward the kind of ideological devotion that Harold J. Laski manifested in embracing the American Communist Party, Didion also expressed her sympathetic understanding of all such “doomed commitments,” as she called them, whether political or romantic. The Cuban exiles’ devotion to their struggle against Communism, and therefore against all the Laskis and Fidel Castros of the world, exists as either the epitome or the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Booklist. LXXXIII, August, 1987, p. 1700.

Business Week. August 31, 1987, p. 86.

Kirkus Reviews. LV, August 1, 1987, p. 1128.

Library Journal. CXII, October 1, 1987, p. 85.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 27, 1987, p. 3.

National Review. XXXIX, October 23, 1987, p. 58.

The New York Times Book Review. XCII, October 25, 1987, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXII, September 11, 1987, p. 71.

Time. CXXX, September 28, 1987, p. 65.

The Washington Post Book World. XVII, October 4, 1987, p. 1.