I have long been an admirer of Joan Didion. Her essay, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in her collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” is one of my all-time favorites. And her description of suffering from a migraine (“In Bed”) in “The White Album,” is, in its exacting and vivid detail, perfection.
But, as I have said in a recent blog, Didion irritates me in this new book, “South and West: From a Notebook,” with her snarky observations as she toured Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in 1970 with her husband, the late John Gregory Dunne. I remind myself that she was young when she made these notes – so this is not the mature Didion of “The Year of Magical Thinking.”
(The second part of the book includes her notes on the Patty Heart trial of 1976 in San Francisco.)
Traveling Alabama and Mississippi, everywhere Didion looks, it seems, she sees “shacks.” The subdivisions her eyes fall upon are “dismal.” The sky is often “overcast,” the piney woods “raw,” the children “barefoot,” the women wearing Capris and “faded cotton blouses.” Women behind cash registers are “sullen” (one with a “pellagra face”), heat is “blazing,” pavement is “stained,” cars are “rusting.” Pick-ups are piled high with “broken furniture and dirty mattresses.” Trains “moan.”
Was Didion clueless before this tour that, at that time, 42.5 percent of Alabamians lived below the poverty line, and that every single county had a poverty rate above the national average? Did she not know that Mississippi has long been the poorest state in the nation?
It would be one thing if Didion were pointing out heart-breaking poverty, described in a way that would move readers to want to help. Instead, her eyes and ears are attuned for the quirky, the odd, the tacky: The young girl in the drugstore who says, “I’m gonna run off and get married – I don’t care who to.” And the “graveyard in a harsh red-dirt hill town, plastic flowers on the plots, overlooking the bright lights of the ballpark.” The town with the sign: “782,000 Alabama Baptists Welcome You!”
There’s no kindness in these observations. No sympathy. No empathy. Not even goodwill.
What exactly is her point when she writes: “I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South.” (Did she miss the Mississippi River?) Or, “He had the smooth, rounded face of well-off New Orleans, the absence of angularity that characterizes the local genetic pool.”
The last thing the South needed in 1970 was a talented writer who pounced on our peculiarities without mentioning our plight.