South and West: From a Notebook

by Joan Didion
reviewed by William Doreski
March 28, 2017

In times of exceptional social and political stress, we turn to our most eloquent journalists and commentators for explanation and relief. We had Norman Mailer, I. F. Stone, Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Gay Talese, and Joan Didion to help us think through the unthinkable sixties and seventies. Imagine Norman Mailer on Donald Trump! Mailer’s own bullying temperament would understand Trump’s, so that when with saber-toothed prose he eviscerated our president, he would stay eviscerated. I. F. Stone would tease out the nuances of Trump’s policies and trace them to their full logical implications. Tom Wolfe would explore the social milieu of the liberal opposition and expose its weak underbelly so that it could better and more wisely defend itself. And Joan Didion, with her chilly, stylish, deceptively objective prose, would lead us somewhere we need to go with the sort of reasoning that exposed the prejudice and legal folly behind the Central Park “wilding” case.

Mailer, Capote, and Stone are gone, Talese produces little, Wolfe has become a novelist, and Didion, wracked by personal loss and age, seems to have withdrawn into the silence of darkest Manhattan. We would value her take on the deeply divided America of this moment. Although she hasn’t commented on our current state of angst, by delving into forty-year-old notes she has unearthed observations of surprising relevance. These two essays, one covering a visit to the Deep South of 1970, the other an autobiographical glimpse of the California of Didion’s past, add to our understanding of the sociopolitical present: the first by exposing anomalies and eccentricities of enduring political consequence, the second with a flash of insight into the reporter’s personal legacy.

Although I have grouped her with the other “new journalists,” as they were called, Didion is her own person. What distinguishes her writing from, say, Mailer’s, is her apparently passive stance, her reluctance to ask questions. Even when facing situations that beg for elucidation, she refrains from grilling her subjects. This is not a lack of curiosity but a commitment to method. Being a small woman, thin and inconspicuous, becomes a means of slipping under her subjects’ guard. This enables her to see and hear things other reporters might miss, and compensates for her unwillingness to interrogate. For all her reticence, though, she is relentlessly judgmental, sometimes openly, more often obliquely, in her word choice and turn of phrase:

When I think now about New Orleans, I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style … in New Orleans such distinctions are the basis of much conversation, and lend that conversation its peculiar childlike cruelty and innocence.

Didion’s Deep South of 1970 is an unnerving and visceral place. Crudely textured, resistant to change, it embraces the bluntest discussions of class, race, and the economy. Liberals, as embodiments of change and progress, need not apply.

Her earliest experience of this world occurred during the Second World War, when she and her mother and siblings visited their father, who was stationed at Duke. Later she became involved with a man who was distinctly Southern, and whose identity was caught up in Southern cooking. She makes her own past feel as dim, heavy, and dense as the hurricane-wracked coastal atmosphere of Long Beach and Gulfport. Didion finds this seascape, supposedly a resort area, dark and foreboding, pervaded by “that ominous white / dark light so characteristic of the entire Gulf.” Her subsequent explorations make clear that the South, caught in the past and fearful of both present and future, embodies a darkness at the core of America but is largely ignored.

Her argument (or thesis, as Nathaniel Rich, in his introduction, calls it) is that the South in 1970 is “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” Yet she also notes of the South’s ordinary citizens that “The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold.” If this is the psychic center, then is America hostage to the ignorance of and indifference to the larger world that her notes depict? Apparently so, and this is why her almost fifty-year-old observations seems to speak to our present moment.

Didion’s vivid prose lends grain and texture to dislocation and despair. Her powers of description are uncanny: “Algiers is a doubtful emulsion of white frame bungalows and jerry-built apartment complexes, the Parc Fontaine Apts. and so forth, and the drive on down the river takes you through a landscape more metaphorical than any I have seen outside the Sonoran Desert.” Only Didion could come up with “emulsion.” And it is classic Didion to drop the word “metaphorical” without further elucidation, leaving the implied comparison with the desert dangling.

Although the prevailing mood is grim, Didion has some good if qualified words for the South: “To be a white middle-class child in a small southern town must be on certain levels the most golden way for a child to live in the United States.” Still, she frequently muses on the availability of flights to California, and when she crosses the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway to New Orleans and home, her sense of relief is palpable. After a humid, exhausting, twenty-thousand-word tour of the South, the book shifts focus to California.

In 1976, Didion agreed to cover the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone, expecting that it would be meaningful to her as a Californian. She found that it was not. Instead, she found herself writing an essay that is “not about Patty Hearst. It is about me and the peculiar vacuum in which I grew up, a vacuum in which the Hearsts could be quite literally king of the hill.” This fragment will be most interesting to those of us concerned with the way subjective and autobiographical elements pervade Didion’s reportage. She has nothing to say about Patty Hearst except—and this is a big except—that contemplating Hearst’s privileged life jolts Didion into realizing that her own life has been uncommonly privileged. This insight becomes the source of the autobiographical impulse that would lead her to write Where I Was From, one of her most engaging books.

The journey through the South, however unfinished or unpolished, stands as a brief but compelling tour of that essential but still incompletely incorporated chunk of America. Didion’s freighted descriptions make this insular world available to us in a way that few other writers could achieve. The California fragment is most useful for readers interested in learning how Didion became herself. For this reviewer, at least, this thrilling little book, with richly finessed prose that equals F. Scott Fitzgerald and James Baldwin’s, will linger.