Joan Didion's 'South and West': Unfinished, but glimpses of brilliance

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  • South and West: From a Notebook
  • By Joan Didion
  • Knopf. 128 pp. $21

Among Joan Didion's admirers, there is a subset so smitten that they (all right, we) would willingly read her collected grocery lists. And we'll read South and West, comprising 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, monthlong driving trip in 1970 with her husband (the late 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 from 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, Miss., and finds the Ole Miss bookstore pitifully lacking; she has a chat with the writer Walker Percy. Much is suggested, little nailed down.

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. We encounter sentences that are vintage Didion, with their detached, reportorial tone, their economy of words, and piercing observations. We get a renewed sense of the writer, now 82, in her creative prime. 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."

South and West gives us reason to be grateful she heeded her own advice.

This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.