The author of “The Year of Magical Thinking” publishes a slim, fascinating volume documenting a reporting trip 47 years ago.
“South and West: From a Notebook”
by Joan Didion
Knopf, $21, 126 pages
Joan Didion’s “South and West: From a Notebook” is a slim volume that arrives without context, almost six years after her last book (“Blue Nights”) and 47 years after she took the reporting trip through the South with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, that fills most of the book. A few more pages of notes from another assignment, to San Francisco in 1976 to cover the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone, complete a book that can be read in an afternoon.
Nothing was published from either trip until now, but that doesn’t mean Didion didn’t get anything out of them. The Rolling Stone article didn’t happen but visiting San Francisco caused Didion to get “quite involved in uncovering my own mixed emotions” and started her on the path that led to “Where I Was From,” her 2003 memoir and cultural history of California.
The Southern trip was just as meaningful in a less direct way. Didion’s short introduction in “South and West” notes only that she hadn’t been back to the South since 1942-43, when her father was stationed in Durham, N.C. “and it did not seem to have changed much.” Nathaniel Rich’s introduction doesn’t add much and says nothing about where Didion was in her life and what she wanted out of the trip other than “a piece,” presumably of journalism.
Didion did pitch Life magazine on a vague idea about “The Mind of the South” and they bought it. Her plan was to do some reporting and maybe start a novel, according to “The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion” by Tracy Daugherty. Some reviewers thought “Run River” was a Southern novel. “Well, maybe this time she’d damn well give them a Southern novel!” Daugherty writes.
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She was struggling, and a road trip must have been appealing. Didion spent a couple of years working on a book with Linda Kasabian, a follower of Charles Manson who was present at the Tate-LaBianca murders. The book project was falling apart, and Didion’s marriage to John Gregory Dunne was on shaky ground. Dunne came along on the trip with thoughts of writing his own piece.
All this is referred to indirectly, in Didion’s signature glancing style. “I seem to remember John drove,” she writes. A few pages later, at the end of a gorgeous description of the road between Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., she drops this out of nowhere:
“I had never expected to come to the Gulf Coast married.”
Fans of “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights,” memoirs about the death of Dunne and of their daughter, respectively, might expect more personal revelation than that, but Didion has always held herself at a distance, describing people and events with icy precision from a safe space in the corner. She watches closely, scribbling notes, overhearing dialogue, not missing anything, yet doesn’t want to be watched. It’s one her many “reporting tricks,” as she calls them, and “South and West” is a reporter’s notebook, which Rich accurately says “surpass(es) in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers.”
“The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan,” Didion writes. “We went wherever the day took us.” It’s a short trip, full of piercing little moments that influenced several of Didion’s later books, and worth taking.