Last year, seemingly out of nowhere, an excerpt of Joan Didion’s notes from the Patty Hearst trial, for a piece she never completed, appeared in the New York Review of Books. It was a pleasant surprise, the gift of a passenger seat ride in Didion’s car. It also included a Didion-ism so incredible, so encapsulating that it rolls through my mind with a striking regularity:
“By the time I started going to Hawaii the Royal Hawaiian was no longer the ‘best’ hotel in Honolulu, nor was Honolulu the ‘smart’ place to vacation in Hawaii, but Honolulu and the Royal Hawaiian had a glamour for California children who grew up as I did.”
This part of Didion is out of place in a media landscape that increasingly demands more than a grain of self-awareness—not the Didion of pointed observations but the Didion of wealth. The Didion that lives a lifestyle foreign to most all Americans, those who will never summer at the Royal Hawaiian no matter how far the hotel slips down in the rankings.
Didion’s new book, South and West, collects the aforementioned Hearst trial notes with a series of excerpts from notes on a month-long road trip she took through the South with her husband in the summer of 1970. Its foreword, written by novelist Nathaniel Rich, is defensive: both of the content of the book and of its sometimes troubling implications. He’s quietly aware of this complicating factor, and is trying to explain away its existence.
“Joan Didion went to the South to understand something about California and she ended up understanding something about America,” writes Rich. He argues that these unfinished scraps have contemporary political relevance: “readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits.”
(Let’s just say that South and West’s publication was announced in October of 2016, before we knew what the country’s political future held. That future, however painful, was decided by the same people that Didion went to New Orleans, Biloxi, Birmingham to observe: white, rural, and—more often than not—proud.)
Just to be clear: I would gleefully read six hundred pages of Joan Didion describing various pools she encountered at various hotels off various highways. Much of South and West is just, deliciously, that. She writes about the short-sleeved nylon shirts of men at metal picnic tables. About limp towels on a dangling clothesline. About billboards and bumper stickers.
But is there anything else, besides the swimming pools? Certainly, there are more of those noted Didion-isms, the warm-wind offhand remarks of wealthy white womanhood, so delicately and pleasingly written that you don’t quite mind: “I had never expected to come to the Gulf Coast married,” for instance, or “It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger.”
All of this is immensely satisfying if you’ve come to South and West expecting Didion’s particular detached-yet-focused view of the world around her. Without the confines of a plot or even characters, all 120-odd pages are dense with sharp observations. Didion has always been able, impressively so, to make the very act of transcribing a conversation into a rhetorical weapon. I imagine that letting Joan Didion into your luncheon in the 1960s or 70s was akin to handing your most prized family photos over to a skilled caricaturist.
But if we are expected to find some sort of modern cultural revelation amongst the anecdotes, well, that’s where South and West falls flat. Didion has lunch with the white owner of a black radio station in Meridian, Mississippi who tells her “the black’s dollar is very important,” and “the KKK which used to be a major factor in this community isn’t a factor anymore, both the membership and the influence have diminished.” In Grenada, Bob Evans, Jr. and his wife keep “a framed Christmas card from the President and Mrs. Nixon, and what appeared to be a framed slave deed.” A prepubescent boy living at a Howard Johnson’s hotel trails his mother, draped in a Confederate flag pool towel.
In a world in which Donald Trump was elected president, staggering reminders of the way that racism thrives within every magnitude of wealth and whiteness aren’t wholly irrelevant. They adjust our understanding of our own political landscape. They force us to confront reality. But I’m not sure that pointing at the situation and then walking away—or in Didion’s case, getting on a plane—is enough to make the case that South and West is a relevant political text. It asks us no questions and points us to no answers. It details a problem without even the hint of instruction as to how to fix it. Didion’s notebook doesn’t include the answer to our questions about the 2016 election any more so than three-dozen think pieces and Vox-plainers.
As a straightforward text, South and West still succeeds. It’s beautiful and engaging, it’s a pleasant, quick read, it’s a ride in the passenger seat of Didion’s mind. Notes from half a century ago don’t demand relevancy. They’re the original script, or in this case, the scraps that would eventually become Didion’s 2003 collection Where I Was From, in which she does the real work of grappling with California’s self-perpetuating romanticism. They’re the literary equivalent of the special features on a DVD menu. And that’s enough.