The Arts

South and West: Undiscovered Landscapes with Joan Didion

(Last Updated On: May 3, 2017)


I grew up with Joan Didion, you could say. I am saying. I don’t know her, I never met her, but she came along at a time in my life when she was completely necessary and her writing changed me, has continued to change me, in the way we can be changed by someone’s work which is at the same time completely alien and totally familiar.

In the late ’70’s when I stumbled upon Slouching Toward Bethlehem, women writers were still an anomaly, or seemed that way to me. They were there, of course, producing amazing work, but they weren’t talked about in the same manner as the Macho Male Heroes of Literature: Hemingway, Mishima, and Mailer. Discovering women writers, at that time (not so long ago), was like stumbling upon another country, a completely new culture.

Didion led me to Janet Malcolm and Renata Adler. They were the Holy Triumvirate of Non-Fiction for me. They were cool, observant, demanding. Their writing was luminous and precise. And they were so goddam smart.

For a kid growing up in Winston Salem, they were intoxicating not only in their language but in the liminal worlds they pried open, worlds with a rich nuance and texture. In their hands, the most mundane exchange could be a revelation.

Now and then, they could puncture the facade of the adult world in ways I’d never read before, with a kind of courageous and measured despair. I still remember the chill that bloomed between my shoulder blades and passed through my body on the last page of Play It as It Lays; I’d never had a physical reaction to a book before.

“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…the atmosphere
absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in
until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.”

South and West: From a Notebook (Alfred A. Knopf, 126 pgs., $21.00) is not the best Didion. It’s compiled from notebooks she kept during her travels through the South and West in 1970. Not unusually for Didion, this trip doesn’t appear to have a purpose, it’s more of a gradual ramble.

Didion grew up in California and she approaches the South as a foreign country, full of idiom and ritual she knows she can never understand. It’s 1970 and the things she sees and describes could appear as caricatures to someone who didn’t grow up in the South at that time. Children playing in the dust making necklaces from pop-top tabs, women wearing polyester dresses with high coiffed hair, restaurants with no name (Why would you need a name? Everyone knows what it is!) only a sign announcing Air Conditioning, a man standing on a street corner with a shotgun.

I remember that South: or rather, I’d forgotten it until Didion reminded me. Rusting cars at the edges of the trees in the backs of everyone’s yard, dusty dirt roads ending at a ramshackle store, endless billboards graphically hawking Salvation. The sense that the earth would reclaim everything in endless tangles of sumac, kudzu, and wet rot unless it was constantly hacked, mown, or burned.

And, among the people, a lethargic sense of rootedness approaching immobility and a kind of fierce insularity that insured I perfectly understood Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery the first time I read it at age fourteen.

“You-all ought to come visit with us,” a third woman said.
They were all young women, the oldest among them perhaps thirty.
“We’ll never get up there,” the first woman said.
“I never been anyplace I wanted to go.”

No one ever arrives anywhere in a Didion story; they always simply find themselves at a place and, more often than not, find themselves wishing they were somewhere else.

South and West is an aggressively casual book after Didion’s last two, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, detailing as they did the death of her husband and her daughter, respectively. You won’t find the breathtaking acuteness of observation or the near surgical dissection of her emotional states here, but you will have the opportunity to travel beside her and consider the world from her cool, bemused perspective. Perhaps, you’ll remember something about the South you’ve forgotten and that something might be comforting or terrifying.

“It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there
I would have become 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?”

There is nothing to say that growing up in the South is decidedly better or worse than anywhere else. We all struggle through our teenage years and early twenties at the brink of many, concurrent disasters. We feel fragile, exposed, unformed, but we would never admit such a thing. We find our ways to survive. Or, should I say, I found my way.

I did not, in the end, knife someone. Joan Didion is one of the reasons why.

One day she will die. I’ll find myself looking forward to the book she’ll write about her death. She has, it seems, shared every other instant of her life with me. Some dark absence will open in the pit of my stomach when I realize she’ll never write that book. That ache will stay with me for a long time.

– Steve Mitchell is co-owner of Scuppernong Books.