South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion, Knopf, 126 pages, $21.
Here are Joan Didion’s opening words to describe June in New Orleans in 1970: “The air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray; the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with morbid luminescence. The crypts above ground dominate certain vistas. In the hypnotic liquidity of the atmosphere, all motion slows into choreography, all people on the street move as if suspended in a precarious emulsion, and there seems only a technical distinction between the quick and the dead.” Describing anything about prose by Joan Didion – even a book as slender and unfinished as this one – as “raw” is more than a little comic. Nothing about Joan Didion’s prose, not even in notes, is “raw.” It is the product of a stunning sensibility that drives headlong into specificity.
Journalists tell themselves that somehow they are her kin in a striving for accuracy and exactitude but light that doesn’t seem to reflect but is rather “sucked into” objects to become “morbid luminescence” is a locution Poe might have liked. The book is about a Southern trip whose only fruits were notes. Didion and her late husband John Gregory Dunne, in 1970, go to New Orleans with the idea of having “no plan” driving so that she could write about The American South. “At the time, I had thought it might be a piece.” It wasn’t. It rested for years as notes but is “raw” here only in the way that notes by Flaubert might be thought “raw.” We’re with her in a South haunted by the past, as she swims in the pool in a Howard Johnson’s, experiences the “awesome possibility” of trains in the rural South unknown in her native California, can’t locate William Faulkner’s grave, can locate Walker Percy for gin and tonics, returns to California and is forced back to her own past. She has never known deprivation, she writes, unlike the South she saw so full of the past. “I have been looking all my life for history and I have yet to find it.” There was a book in that – years later but a book nevertheless.