Beautiful Country Burn Again

Book review: South and West, by Joan Didion

I am trying to place myself in history.
I have been looking all my life for history and have yet to find it.
The resolutely “colorful,” anecdotal quality of San Francisco history. “Characters” abound. It puts one off.
In the South they are convinced that they are capable of having bloodied their land with history. In the West we lack this conviction.
Beautiful country burn again.

There’s something enchanting about the American South to outsiders. It exudes something a little spooky, eerie, mysterious. It draws curiosity magnetically and as regional outsiders, much of it is difficult to understand. Sometimes we just gawk. Maybe it’s the landscapes, unusual compared to much of the rest of the States, the strange and interconnected histories of the groups of people long established there, and the ever present sense of intrigue or the unexpected. The heavy heat creates another surreal layer for those unused to it.

“The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.” 

Joan Didion drove aimlessly through Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana with her husband for a month in the summer of 1970. She had plans for a more organized piece based on the trip but it never materialized.

Instead, her notes and observations were finally published in the form of South and West, two extended essays. One is on the aforementioned southern road trip and what she saw and felt there; the second consists of some disorganized, almost disembodied observations on California, her longtime favorite writing topic, and her family’s place there.

The notes came from those she was taking when she covered the Patty Hearst trial, and considered Hearst’s connection and contemporary place in the state. That’s a pretty good essay itself, I read it in After Henry. But the notes published here are too disjointed and not particularly interesting. There are a few lovely lines, as expected from anything springing from Didion’s brain, but beyond that it’s nothing to get excited about.

Her writing on the South is something special, however. She’s written, even in disorganized form, what amounts to a gorgeous slice of Americana. I would’ve read an entire book of what Joan Didion did in the South.

The essay also strongly evoked the sense of summer, especially late summer, to me. I think I’ll always be reminded of it when the dog days of August roll around. It’s just such a deep, visceral, evocative piece.

“In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology.”

Something I love about Didion is that she knows when to let people, like her interview subjects, speak for themselves. This is especially good here when she gathers social observations from the South, and in addition to intelligent, thoughtful analysis of who stays put and who leaves home, and some ideas about education and race, one person mentions, “We’re not nearly as inbred as we used to be.”

Meaning, of course, that there are transplants from other parts of the country living there now, but maybe unconsciously referencing a stereotype the rest of the country often holds about the region.

That’s followed up shortly with “we don’t wear crinolines anymore, no we don’t,” and a man who cheerfully tells her he’s shooting at “Pi-eagins.” 

“In New Orleans they have mastered the art of the motionless.” That lethargy, perhaps heat-induced, or at least the laid-back mannerisms so uncharacteristic of big city-living affect her powerfully, even to the point that her reporting style is out of whack:

“All the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South…I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.”

“It was the kind of Sunday to make one ache for Monday morning,” and I know exactly what she means. Even in her messy notes she can out-write everybody else.

Her biggest takeaway from these journeys seems to be the way they make her consider her own family and upbringing, and what other people raised in other parts of the country, seemingly from another culture despite the shared nationality, can tell one about oneself. It’s fascinating to see Didion’s process of learning something about herself in these unexpected places and ways.

Deep, stylistically beautiful, if lopsided in terms of quality between the two, nearly raw material from one of the great writers and essayists of our time.

South and West: From A Notebook
by Joan Didion
published March 7, 2017 by Knopf

Linked here to the newly published UK edition (September 21), I love the new cover photo!

I’ve included affiliate links from Book Depository.
It means I get a small commission if you buy via these links. I’m never paid to promote or review any title.

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