SOUTH AND WEST (From a Notebook) By Joan Didion

“In New Orleans in June 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.” (p. 5) Deb will have to weigh in on the accuracy of the first line of Joan Didion’s first fragment, “South.” South and West are pieces Didion started but never finished. “South” is based on a road trip Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne took in June 1970. As with much of Didion’s work, you get a lot about her as well as whatever topic she’s writing about.

“As it happens I was taught to cook by someone from Louisiana, where an avid preoccupation with recipes and food among men was not unfamiliar to me. We lived together for some years, and I think we must fully under each other when once I tried to kill him with a kitchen knife.” (p. 8) Didion and her husband meander across the South aimlessly, making observations as they travel around. Didion interviews a white owner of a Black music radio station. “South” is 107 pages of this 126 page book.

That means that “West” is about 10 pages long. Didion told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that she wanted to cover the Patter Hearst trial in 1976. But once Didion got to San Francisco, a number of memories got triggered. Didion recalls her first airplane flight from New York City to San Francisco. She remembers the first time she walked across the Golden Gate Bridge. And…then the book ends. As much as I admire Joan Didion’s work, I found this book of fragments unsatisfying. If you want to read the Good Stuff Joan Didion has written, I highly recommend We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. You can safely skip South and West. GRADE: C

11 thoughts on “SOUTH AND WEST (From a Notebook) By Joan Didion

  1. Deb

    I’m not sure about the “heavy with death” thing–but if you’re on Bourbon Street at one in the morning, you’re gonna a lot of drunken decay and, in all likelihood, quite a bit of not-very-lovely-to-look-at sex. However, I do agree with Didion’s assertion of the importance of food and food preparation to southern Louisiana. When I first moved here and met people who, while they were eating like NYC, talked about what they were going to make and eat for dinner, I knew I’d come to my rightful culinary home! (Political home is a whole ‘nother story–but you can’t have everything!)

    Sorry to hear this is not a good book–perhaps it would have been better for Joan to accept that the pieces were originally unpublished for a reason. Her two most recent memoirs, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING and BLUE NIGHTS, about the loss of her husband and daughter, are heartbreaking and excellent.

    Reply
    1. george Post author

      Deb, I’ve read just about everything Joan Didion has written. These fragments evoke those times back in the Seventies…but they’re just fragment. I found your comments on New Orleans and food intriguing!

      Reply
  2. Jeff Meyerson

    Still, it makes me want to read her last book, which I missed. It may not be great but it still sounds interesting to me.

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    1. george Post author

      Jeff, everything Joan Didion writes is worth reading. It’s just that these two fragments aren’t very satisfying. I read SOUTH AND WEST in an hour.

      Reply
  3. Cap'n Bob

    All that death and sex she’s talking about sounds like humidity to me! Patter Hearst? I remember her!

    Reply

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