South and West: From a Notebook
by joan didion
knopf, 160 pages, $21
“There is,” says Don DeLillo, “a motel in the heart of every man. Where the highway begins to dominate the landscape … this is most likely where it stands.” This line from Americana captures the spirit of Joan Didion, who has always seemed at home in anonymous, transitional places. Her troubled heroines turn up in airports, casinos, and hotel coffee shops. They wander the Los Angeles freeways or stay too long on tropical islands—tourists without a schedule or date of return. Movement itself becomes the goal, an evasion of anxiety and failure. In her fiction and essays, Didion captures the lure of motion and the dread of something in the rearview mirror, a threat that closes in as the world flashes by. Inevitably movement stalls, and terror ensues. Tourists leave the island, options dwindle, and the highway leads to a reckoning in the desert.
In South and West, her newly published notes from 1970, Didion checks into a series of motels on her trek across the Gulf South, a region sunk in history. Vines rupture the sidewalk in New Orleans’s elegant Garden District while the residents, aware of the encroaching swamp, mask their unease:
In New Orleans they also talk about parties, and about food, their voices rising and falling, as if talking about anything at all could keep the wilderness at bay. In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect. The effect is lively and avaricious and intensely self-absorbed, a tone not uncommon in colonial cities, and the principal reason I find such cities invigorating.
Faced with a strange and forbidding landscape, one soggy, humid, and alive with snakes, Didion likewise becomes self-absorbed and desperate for refuge. She seeks it in the anonymous comfort of postwar suburbia, which at that time barely existed in the Gulf South. In Biloxi, where the pool at her hotel smells of fish, she escapes to a new shopping center surrounding an air-conditioned mall, a lonely outpost of “mid-stream America.” Later, in Meridian, she finds unlikely bliss at a Howard Johnson’s: “Sitting by the pool at six o’clock I felt the euphoria of Interstate America: I could be in San Bernardino, or Phoenix, or outside Indianapolis.” At the pool, a boy tells his mother he wants to live at the motel—a rather Didionesque sentiment. As the journey wears on, her urge to escape becomes ever more pressing. She eventually avoids cities large enough to support a national airport. The temptation to board a flight back to California would be irresistible.
This yearning for California seems odd in view of the work that established Didion’s reputation in the ’60s and ’70s, especially Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Play it as it Lays, and The White Album. She mentions “the redemptive wilderness of the Western imagination,” but her writing undercuts that romantic frontier narrative, just as it reveals the dark side of footloose wandering. In her essays and novels, people who flee to the wilderness do not find redemption from the world and its illusions; they find emptiness or death. Some go to the desert in search of God and die of rattlesnake bite. Others die and become food for coyotes or go mad and start raving about underground nuclear tests. Didion shudders at the thought of moccasins in southern waterways, but horror of snakes (especially rattlesnakes) is a recurring theme in her California books. Play it as it Lays opens with a reflection on the nature of evil and an image—plainly biblical—of a pygmy rattler in an artichoke garden. Rattlesnakes also appear in “Los Angeles Notebook” and “On Morality,” which Didion wrote on a hot night in Death Valley. Floods, earthquakes, and the Santa Ana wind further support her view of nature as blind or hostile to human needs.
Society amounts to little more than a game played against a background of cosmic indifference. In Play it as it Lays and elsewhere, Las Vegas is an apt symbol of human life—a chancy venture with no external meaning or significance. Even so, the game exists for good reason: to shield those who play from the surrounding darkness. Las Vegas might be garish and fake, but those who wander outside its pulsing glow do not find meaning or salvation. What they find negates meaning and threatens reason. In this way, Didion the taciturn Westerner has more in common with the garrulous residents of New Orleans than with the utopians and dreamers of her native state.
It’s worth remembering that Didion supported Goldwater’s campaign and launched her career at Buckley’s National Review. Indeed, her early work represents a brand of conservatism that has all but vanished from America. This disposition rests not on piety, patriotism, or defensive nostalgia (the opiate of the South), but on a bleak assessment of human possibilities. Whatever its flaws and limits, Didion suggests, the game is the only thing standing between our world and the abyss, and it is imperative to keep it going. In “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” her famous critique of the Summer of Love, Didion observes the rootless youth of the Haight-Ashbury and attributes their plight to the breakdown of “the game we were playing,” which the preceding generation failed to pass on. Bereft of community and extended family, these young people fill the void with improvised communities and second-hand slogans. Elsewhere in her work, Didion focuses on people who cope in private with the general dissolution. They move around without a plan, chasing the promise of Interstate America—the open road to anywhere-but-here. This solution works until the rhythm stops and vague possibilities crumble on contact with hard realities.
South and West only hints at this larger context. Consequently, this slight volume may hold little interest for readers unfamiliar with Didion’s writing. In his preface, Nathanael Rich tries to link Didion’s notes to the politics of the Trump era. This seems glib to me, a strained attempt to give the document contemporary political relevance. True, South and West has something to say about the region’s reactionary politics and their waxing influence from that time to now. But if anything, her comments anticipate not the distant future but the shape of the Nixon administration and the national backlash against civil rights legislation and the sexual revolution—events close at hand in 1970. Rich contends that “nobody” in Los Angeles or the Bay Area could foresee the power of that reaction. If true, that speaks not to Didion’s prescience but to the absurd provincialism of certain urban elites, who only needed to drive south on the San Diego Freeway to discover that their views did not represent most of California, much less the whole country. Didion does not rise to prophecy, but she offers something more reasonable: a vivid glimpse of the past—which still bears on the present—and a moment in the life of Joan Didion.
How compelling that moment is will depend on the degree of interest one takes in Joan Didion. For my part, I enjoyed watching her respond in her precise, inimitable voice to the Gulf South, a place familiar to me but strange to her. I would have liked a longer account of her meeting with Walker Percy at his camp near Covington. Percy praised Didion’s work and devoted his own to similar themes: alienation, dread, detachment. Didion’s description of New Orleans society recalls Percy’s Love in the Ruins, an apocalyptic comedy in which chatty Louisianans seem oblivious to the vines overtaking their world. Unfortunately, South and West contains only a passing glimpse of that meeting on the bayou.
Of course, Percy approached the themes of the day from a religious perspective that Didion resists (“No eye was on the sparrow,” she declares in her memoir of grief, The Year of Magical Thinking). How does she endure such a bleak view of life? In Play it as it Lays, Mariah Wyeth takes up the crucial question—Why stay in the game?—and answers with a shrug: “Why not?” Fortunately, South and West proffers something more substantial: an intimate love of home. Despite Didion’s disenchantment with California, the final pages of this book do not show a wandering, alienated critic. They tell instead of coastal hills and the Central Valley’s agricultural vistas. They show someone at ease in the world, if only for a time. It’s a small grace, perhaps, but a welcome respite on a long, hard journey.
Richard T. Whittington serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.