This image released by Knopf shows "South and West," by Joan Didion. (Knopf via AP)
What is it they say about famous writers? They could publish their grocery list and it would be a best seller?
"South and West" is not a grocery list, but a slim book consisting of excerpts (observations, descriptions, fragments of dialogue) from Joan Didion's notebooks jotted down more than 40 years ago. The first — "South" — chronicles a road trip she took with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, in 1970 through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.
The language is sometimes lush — "a somnolence so dense it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi ..." — and sometimes direct — "There was no sun. The air was as liquid as the pool. Everything seemed to be made of concrete, and damp. A couple of men in short-sleeved nylon shirts sat at another metal table and drank beer from cans." We're watching the 35-year-old Didion try things out, discover her style.
It's a treat to see a bygone America through Didion's young eyes. She's long said she writes to make sense of her own life and she's not shy about that here: "It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?"
But it's also a little eerie reading Didion's reflections about the South in 1970, when so many of her observations ring true to the present condition. The people she meets, like the white owner of the black radio station in Meridian, Mississippi, talk so frankly about race and class: "I had a man the other day, owns an appliance store, he never believed you could send a black repairman into somebody's house," says WQIC's Stan Torgerson. "Now he can't find a white. ... He asks me if I know a black man who makes a good appearance. That's progress ..."
The second notebook — "West" — is much shorter and derived from the time she spent in San Francisco covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone. She never published anything in the magazine, but instead used the experience to get introspective again. "I am trying to place myself in history," she writes. Years later, Didion published her memoir, "Where I Was From," and drew heavily from her Hearst notebooks.
There's a sense of guilt that permeates the exercise. Didion realizes she's had a privileged upbringing (tea parties and gold silk organza curtains) and she often tries to reconcile that: "I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it" and "I see now that the life I was raised to admire was infinitely romantic."
In the end, of course, she can only "hope to reinvent" her life, but this thought sums up the book best: "In the South they are convinced that they are capable of having bloodied their land with history. In the West we lack this conviction."
All the material is easily read, but not as easily understood. What motivates a writer to put something like this out there? While Didion scholars will certainly enjoy mining it for more gems than this brief review can, it left me wanting more — more of Didion's older and wiser voice weighing in on the social and political divides that still define this country, from North to South to East to West.