By Heidi Simmons
South and West
by Joan Didion
There is something magical about travel, especially when you are seeking stories. Places, and narratives, can be very near, while others can be quite distant. The beautiful and brilliant author Joan Didion gives readers a glimpse not only into the South, but also into her life as a writer and storyteller in her latest book South and West: From a Notebook (Alfred Knopf, 132 pages).
The book archives Didion’s experience after she flies with her husband to Louisiana for a road trip. They make no plans other than to travel around the South. Throughout her journey, Didion takes notes, clips articles and saves dialogue that reveals a provocative world of race, sexism and decay.
Born in Sacramento, Didion seeks to better understand her colorful and liberal state of California through uncovering the intrinsic nature of the South. It is 1970, and the California girl, privileged and educated, discovers an alien world that appears lost in time and history.
Didion discribes New Orleans upon arrival: “…Heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology.”
And so she goes. Didion travels the Southern world driving along the back roads and byways of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, observing the people, places and politics with acute skill and sensitivity.
Slender with long hair, and sometimes in a “California” bikini, Didion is perceived, not only as an outsider, but as something lost, dangerous and untamed. Experiencing sexism first hand, she is asked about her marital status. Southern women her age don’t wear their hair long and certainly don’t wear swimsuits that show so much flesh.
When Didion seeks medical attention at a local hospital after a fall, the head nurse doubts her story and history. The doctor however, flirts, brags and converses about how he misses the North, clearly seduced by his patient’s beauty, brains and charm – as if it’s been awhile since he could talk to a woman so freely and intellectually.
For weeks, the couple drives through towns not even on the map. They stay in roadside hotels, and dine at local cafes. Didion meets and interviews residents by getting her nails done, hanging out at the community drugstore or stopping at the neighborhood Laundromat.
It is at these simple and authentic places Didion meets the girls and women of the South. She inquires about their dreams and their lives. She is empathetic, moved without being judgmental, but cannot imagine how she would live or survive in such an environment.
Didion is poetic, and her notes and observations are visceral. She writes: “The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape. And the graveyards everywhere, with plastic sweet peas on the graves of infants.”
Beyond a storyteller and journalist, Didion is an astute cultural anthropologist, gleaning stories from the poor and the wealthy. With her connections, Didion is allowed access, and people freely disclose – brag – about their points of view – racists as they may be, often showing off their antiquated lifestyle.
From Didion’s notes we get a sense of a wise, thoughtful and insightful person, writing the truth without condemnation. She allows her subjects their own words to provide the narrative of their homes, businesses and religious lives.
South and West is mainly about the South. There are less than 20 pages about the “West.” I wanted to experience California the same way she reported on the southern states. But, she only comments on class differences, pedigree and her love for her home, particularly Sacramento. Perhaps, it has already been done in her works of fiction and nonfiction set in California.
If Didion was truly in search of a connection between the South and the West, it is vague and the relationship – tied in the book – is obtuse. The regions seem greatly juxtaposed in nearly every way.
Didion never turned in a feature story about her experience traveling to the South. Originally, she was assigned by “Rolling Stone” to cover the Patty Hearst trial after her Southern trip, but didn’t meet that obligation either. Didion does not say why exactly, but the impression is she was changed by her journey and the lives of those she met along the way.
Ironically, Didion’s experiences on her trip to the South in 1970, hardly seem much different today – racism, sexism, socio-economic challenges remain significant issues.
South and West reveals Didion’s raw talent as a brilliant writer, and her innate gift as an observer who can chronicle the fine details and abstract ideas that make up the lives of people and their communities.
For the record: CVW Volume 6, Number 4, Book Review inadvertently reprinted John Grisham’s photo, book cover and title along with my review of “Always Happy Hour: Stories” by Mary Miller leaving readers confused. I’ve asked that the correction be made online. I appreciate the alert readers who brought this to my attention.