didion book

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf, New York 2017)

“California Notes” began as an assignment from ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine on the Patty Hearst trial of 1976. Didion never wrote the piece, but she collected a large number of notes, which wandered far from the trial of Hearst and Hearst’s eventual conviction of bank robbery. Instead, Didion’s assignment triggered wide-ranging thoughts about her West Coast home country and her upbringing in Sacramento. In ‘Notes on the South’, Didion recounts a journey she took with her husband John Gregory Dunne in June of 1970. Landing in New Orleans, the pair drove aimlessly through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, quietly observing small towns, out of the way hamlets, and villages that seemed timeless.

Even though these “notes” are vaguely unpolished, they represent Didion at her best. Her prose is crystalline, haunting and magical in their luminous “rightness”. Each sentence seems to impart a trembling echo of reality to the page, not exactly real and not exactly unreal, but something transcendent and right. There are still brown rivers, air that “never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with morbid luminescence.” Ther are always water moccasins in one’s consciousness, crawling around.

One of the nice things about this book is the insightful introduction by Nathaniel Rich. It is good to hear from Didion again, even in a book of “notes”. She’s old and sick now, long past her prime, and she’s lost the things that always mattered to her most, her husband, her daughter, her youth and vigor. But as far as I’m concerned she’s not lost her audience.

Here she is writing about “home”—California:

“Part of it is simply what looks right to the eye, sounds right to the ear. I am at home in the West. The hills of the coastal ranges look ‘right’ to me, the particular flat expanse of the Central Valley comforts my eye. The place names have the ring of real places to me. I can pronounce the names of the rivers, and recognize the common trees and snakes. I am easy here in a way that I am not easy in other places.”

How many writers could explain their feeling about ‘home’ in such a profound, short paragraph? Thomas Wolfe? Proust? Tolstoy? Probably not. Maybe only Hemingway, and he’d be pressed to do it as well.