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A biography of a great living writer whose life cried out for one

BIOGRAPHY

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

By Tracy Daugherty

St. Martin’s Press

728 pages, $35.

By Jeff Simon

News Arts Editor

When Phillip Lopate was compiling an immense Library of America anthology of work by American Movie Critics “From the Silents Until Now,” he managed to uncover a startling little cache of four ’60s movie reviews for Vogue by Joan Didion, of all people. That was long before Didion attained her current sanctified position among the Brahmins of American prose.

Whether from rights reprint problems or from Didion’s own refusal to reprint them or just second thoughts, they never made it into the final edition of the anthology, only the advanced galley copy.

Here’s how Joan Didion led off her review of Stanley Donen’s semi-classic “Charade” starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn: “Let me lay it on the line: I like movies, and approach them with a tolerance so fond that it will probably strike you as simple-minded.”

Things were happening in the early ’60s and the future literary Saint Joan was on the cusp of many of them. For one thing, New York’s higher literary circles were about to be invaded – again – by Californians, most meaningfully Berkeleyites John Leonard and Pauline Kael and Didion, an indigenous female Westerner so Californian that her roots were in Nevada. For another, the “New Journalism” was about to wreak subjective havoc with the “objective” stolidities of the old. That’s what happens, for one thing, when novelists by the squadron, started discovering just how aesthetically rewarding journalism can be.

Of all living American writers – Didion will be 81 in December – Joan Didion has been in the uppermost tier of those crying out for a truly great literary biography. Her own life has been crucial to her work – most significantly in her harrowingly tragic later years, when the fatal heart attack of her writer/husband/partner John Gregory Dunne inspired “The Year of Magical Thinking” and the subsequent death of her daughter Quintana, which occasioned Didion’s “Blue Nights.”

Vanessa Redgrave, no less, starred in 144 Broadway performances of Didion’s adaptation “The Year of Magical Thinking.” In one of those quirks that could only be engineered by what Machiavelli called “fortune’s great and steady malice,” after portraying Didion’s grief for so long, Redgrave’s own daughter, actress Natasha Richardson, suffered a fatal head injury in a ski accident.

We needed this book – and a literary biographer as good as Tracy Daugherty – to understand, for one thing, how much that brief, distant early ’60s movie critic was the direct precursor of the novelist who first traduced America in 1970 with her second novel “Play It As It Lays.”

It is Daugherty who tells us that Didion’s review of Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg in “Lilith” declared that the movie’s apparent question “what makes Lilith schizophrenic” was like asking “what makes Iago evil?” or “why Auschwitz?”

There, clearly, was the precursor of the famous opening line of “Play It As It Lays”: “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

Didion, in that novel can posit a world where “nothing applies” to her heroine Maria Wyeth. Daugherty, in his biography, has to assume that one way or another, everything might apply in a Didion biography.

Which makes it no small problem for a biographer when his 80-year old subject refuses to cooperate with him and, no doubt, brings important family members and friends into a cone of silence with her.

If you want to read a superb biography that cruises along splendidly despite a groaning cargo-hold of obstacles threatening to capsize it, Daughter’s book will suffice excellently.

He is discreet about the tragic losses of Didion’s harrowing elder years but by no means heedless. Didion, typically, can be as oblique as she might like to be about Quintana’s mysterious death from what Didion guesses was “Avian flu.”

It’s incumbent on Daugherty’s thoroughness as a biographer to also observe that “in her books Didion does not address the possibility that years of alcohol abuse may have compromised Quintana’s ability to respond to disease.”

Nor is his discretion and understandable immense reverence for his subject as a novelist, journalist and critic so unbounded that it stops him from creating one of his biography’s strangest and most acerbic and least temperate moments: that, in her ambitious magazine years among New York City’s writers, the seemingly omni-connected Didion had only to go to one of the soirees at James Baldwin’s well-populated apartment to “have been reminded in a galvanizing way, that not every writer in New York put a sizable advance in front of a love of words. She might have been shaken out of the fashionable weariness and inside professionalism glutting Conde Nast. If only briefly, she might have stopped dreading others’ success and dreaming of flight to Tinseltown.”

That should, from Daugherty, speak to those who are now admitting testily and publicly that it’s the whiteness of Didion’s wails that has always appalled them.

Daugherty may admit to being persuaded to emulate as much possible of Didion’s elliptical and laconically distanced methodology. But when, in her essay, “The White Album,” Didion famously reports seeing at a Doors recording session Jim Morrison “lighting a match and deliberately lowering it to the fly of his black velvet pants,” Daugherty responds “in fact, Eve Babitz told me Morrison burst into the studio drunk, towing a couple of blitzed young girls. He DID light matches but he tossed them at Didion, flirting and laughing.”

Such acid and mere skepticism can’t erode the essential importance of what Daugherty does here, which is write the biography of a writer whose personal connections were vast in both big Hollywood moviedom and the inner precincts of literary New York.

When, in her senior years, the author of “Political Fictions,” “Play It As It Lays,” “Democracy,” “The White Album” and “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” among so many other books, wins an award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, Michael Cunningham credited her work with being among that by those writers “so seminal, so of its time and beyond its time that their names come to function as adjectives. Didionesque means, to me at least, a fearless and almost frighteningly astute version of a world blandly and even cheerfully collapsing under the weight of its own inner sorrows. It is a world entangled in consumerism, disastrous politics, pop culture, the slow-motion avalanche of history, the non-division of wealth.”

Daugherty has previously written indispensable biographies of Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller. What he’s produced here is a worthy “life” of a writer all-too-easy for the heedless to toss away as a mere avatar of literary “lifestyle.”

Jeff Simon is the arts and books editor of The Buffalo News.