I’ve finished reading “South and West: From a Notebook” by Joan Didion. At one hundred and twenty-six pages, this was a quick read. If you’ve been following along you’ve probably gathered that I’ve become a fan of Joan Didion’s writing. I am familiar with her cadence, her style. I often refer to her as “Saint Joan.” I love her writing. That said, this book didn’t quite do it for me.
“South and West: From a Notebook” is pretty close to literally that. In 1970, Didion and her husband, author John Gregory Dunne, decided to spend a month in “the South” as she had not been there since she was a child and her father was stationed in Durham, North Carolina. Didion writes that their plan was to begin in New Orleans and then just go wherever the days took them, driving around in a rented car, across and in and out of several states, staying in hotels, visiting friends, acquaintances, and friends of friends, talking to people. She had thought the notes she took, the material she gathered from her observations, might become “a piece.” They took the trip. She took the notes. She never wrote the piece. The beginning of “South and West,” the first one hundred and seven pages, are drawn from her notes on “the South.”
Here’s where I have to admit that my opinion of this book is shaded by my own knowledge of “the South,” and my own visits to “the South” as a child. The last time I was definitively in the South was a trip driving across the country from California to Mississippi when I was twelve. Unless you count passing through El Paso, Texas en-route to and from New Mexico when I was twenty-seven, which I do not. My mother was from the South, her family was from the South, so that means part of my family was from the South. I spoke with a southern accent until I was seven and if I’m around anyone who really has one, I slip back into it to some degree to this day. But, not just the South, the Deep South. Joan Didion does not make this distinction in this book, though the places she visited were most certainly the Deep South. These are places that are otherworldly, truly, or at least they were then, in 1970. Many of them untouched by time in a way that would be difficult for outsiders to comprehend. As say that as an outsider myself. The picture Didion paints isn’t a flattering one. What struck me wrong about it, however, is that it seemed uncharacteristically shallow for Didion. She laments, for example, the lack of decent places to dine or get good food as they travel from place to place, without ever addressing the reason why there were no “good” restaurants of the kind someone from the East or the West might be accustomed to, and that reason is poverty. No one there could afford to go out to eat regularly enough to sustain any kind of fine dining hall or even just a diner. In the South, well, why would you go to a restaurant and pay twice as much for what you could get better of at home? Joan Didion’s take on “the South” in 1970 reads something like a fish out of water story, one with a somewhat disdainful tone for the seemingly backward place she’s voluntarily chosen to visit. She seems to have gone there looking for the Spanish Moss and the romance of the place only to have found the depression, decay, and humidity.
Didion treads lightly around issues of racism, never mentions directly that in most of the places she visited at that time there were likely two sides to town, one black and one white, self-segregated in many cases, though in others not so much. She talks about sharecropping families or relates what someone they visited said about it all, still staying on family lands, without any mention of that level of poverty extending to many white families for generations as well. There’s some level of disapproval or mild shock or amusement at the conversation of beauty parlor ladies who live in air-conditioned trailers and don’t quite seem to know they could have better lives, bigger dreams, if only they wanted to. She mentions her alma mater, Berkeley, whilst not quite completely talking down Ole Miss. (The University of Mississippi) Eventually descending into the confession that they are avoiding visiting towns large enough to have real airports with flights available back to L.A. or to New York (civilization) because she knows they’d be on the next one out and eventually, after a spat, they are.
Because I love Joan Didion’s work, I’ll tell you that it reads like a partial portrait of a place she didn’t quite understand well enough to paint. The writing is nonetheless interesting and she does make one keen observation on page 104, “The timewarp: the Civil War was yesterday but 1960 is spoken of as if it were three hundred years ago.” But even at that, it is only partially keen as to the way the Civil War was spoken of and again, with no comprehension of why it is spoken of that way, that even if rightly so, it was the destruction of the world of the South, no less devastating than the wrath of a hurricane that levels everything in its path. In 1970, at least, it was a destruction still being felt in those places where time had yet to restore the economy, or the heart and soul, in places where it never would, and those people lived every day knowing it. They were born into places time forgot and that the future had yet to know. Perhaps it’s an easy place to rest the blame, but to negate it is to negate the humanity of the people of those places, black and white. So I would call her understanding of “the South” a misunderstanding of it. But as I said, the writing is nonetheless engaging.
The last twenty or so pages of the book are notes she took upon return to California when she thought she might write a piece about the Patty Hearst trial. She would never write that piece either but her notes about California would later become the piece “Where I Was From” which is classic Didion, a wonderful bit of writing. Joan Didion writing about California, or New York, is very fish-in-water. Joan Didion understands “the West.” She also admits in these passages that in her life she has “never known deprivation.” Were Didion oblivious as to this fact about herself, she might not have become much of a writer. Those who are oblivious to such things are those who think you can always just “get a new one” of whatever it is, and so on. Her writing about California is easy, and it is this she admits to awareness of as well, which is refreshingly remarkable.
If you’re a fan of Joan Didion, you’ll enjoy this book as one of hers. If you have a more well-rounded opinion of “the South” you might not quite appreciate it as much. I’ll probably still refer to her as “Saint Joan.”
Now I’m reading Sam Shepard’s “Motel Chronicles.” I shall let you know how it goes.