Among Joan Didion’s admirers, there is a subset so smitten that they (all right, we) would willingly read her collected grocery lists.
Imagine the joy, then, of a new volume of Didion, even one as slender as this. Of course, the contents aren’t exactly new. What we have here is two excerpts from notebooks the writer kept in the 1970s, intended as raw material for articles that were assigned or contemplated.
The first and more extensive is “Notes on the South,” an impressionistic record of a meandering, month-long driving trip in 1970 with her late husband (the writer John Gregory Dunne) through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. “The idea,” she explains, “was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.”
The second, “California Notes,” only a handful of pages, originated in a story assignment by Jann Wenner, then the editor of Rolling Stone, about the San Francisco trial of kidnapped American heiress turned gun-wielding radical Patty Hearst.
The Southern trip’s purpose, like its itinerary, was vague: “There was no reportorial imperative to any of the places I went ... no celebrated murders, trials, integration orders, confrontations, not even any celebrated acts of God.”
Didion just had a hunch: that the South was somehow the “psychic center” of America. And she does explore, in a piecemeal way, Southern attitudes about race and gender. She looks for but fails to locate William Faulkner’s grave in Oxford, Mississippi, and finds the Ole Miss bookstore pitifully lacking; she has a chat with the writer Walker Percy.
Much is suggested, little is nailed down.
In the end, the concept melted in the enveloping heat: “All the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them.”
A few of the more polished passages bring to mind what Didion could do at her height — the literary journalism from El Salvador, the defining pieces about California’s culture of ennui. Here, a scene at a cafe in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, stands out: “A blond girl with a pellagra face stood sullenly behind the cash register, and a couple of men sat in a booth.” The jukebox played “Sweet Caroline,” and everyone watched Didion eat her grilled cheese sandwich. “When we went back out into the blazing heat one of the men followed us and watched as we drove away.”
At times, the notes are merely disconnected impressions. In one regrettable case, a harangue by a good ol’ boy is presented verbatim for pages.
Still, salvation keeps arriving: Sentences — with their detached, reportorial tone, their economy of words, and piercing observations — that are vintage Didion.
“In New Orleans they have mastered the art of the motionless,” and “A pickup pulled in with the back piled high with broken furniture and dirty mattresses: it sometimes seemed to me that mattresses were on the move all over the South.” Also: “I was in a place where ‘Sunday’ still existed as it did in my grandmother’s house, a leadening pause in the week, a day of boredom so extreme as to be exhausting.”
These excerpts, of course, cannot approach Didion’s two great nonfiction collections, “The White Album” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” or her screenplay for “The Panic in Needle Park,” or her 2005 memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
Didion admits here that the pieces she had in mind turned out to be busts. “I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month,” she concludes about the Southern trip. As for the Hearst assignment, she shrugs: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me — because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”
But these excerpts have value. They give us a renewed sense of the writer, now 82, in her creative prime. And, often enough, they remind us of her brilliance as a stylist, social commentator and observer.
In a well-known essay from “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” Didion mused on the value of keeping a notebook. “I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not,” she wrote. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
With the publication of “South and West,” there is every reason to be grateful that Didion heeded her own advice, and wrote it all down.
Margaret Sullivan wrote this review for the Washington Post.