The Uptown Local: Joy, Death, and Joan Didion

The Uptown Local: Joy, Death, and Joan Didion, Cory Leadbeater's elegant debut memoir, is a nostalgic meditation on the fluctuations of fortune and the power of literature.

Leadbeater grew up in a blue-collar family in Jersey City, N.J., with an abusive father. While he was a student at Columbia University, he landed a job as personal assistant to the writer Joan Didion. The six-month position wound up lasting nearly nine years, until Didion's death in 2021. Her calm wisdom--earned the hard way, by familiarity with death (Didion wrote the iconic memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights about losing her husband and daughter)--helped Leadbeater keep going when setbacks such as his best friend's sudden death, his father's prison sentence for fraud, his partner's miscarriage, and the rejection of his novel by publishers worsened his addictions and suicidal ideation. Didion "loved me and it kept me alive," he writes, her "acceptance and validation... a buoy against an ocean of indifference."

Leadbeater's tone shifts through the memoir. Initially, there's breezy awe at joining a highbrow literary circle. Leadbeater met Didion via his professor and friend, the poet James Fenton. "I had stumbled sideways into history," he remarks, marveling at the privilege of being at the heart of New York City life: taking taxis, reading the Times over coffee, meeting Fenton for dinner at a sidewalk cafe. Early similarities to Joanna Rakoff's My Salinger Year fade as the memoir turns more somber and elegiac, but Leadbeater's insightful, allusive prose is a joy. This tribute to Didion is also a study of luck, resilience, and the legacy of kindness. --Rebecca Foster, freelance reviewer, proofreader and blogger at Bookish Beck

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