What We're Reading Now: SOUTH AND WEST by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s South and West, published in 2017, is a slim volume excerpted from Didion’s notes during two periods—one in 1970, on a roadtrip in the American South, and another in 1976, around the Patty Hearst trial.

While the pieces Didion may have intended to write in the 70s didn’t pan out, the notes left from each period paint clearly snapshots of both times with full force of Didion’s shrewd yet dispassionate eye for detail. In her notes, glimpses into conversations and observations of the land, Didion’s voice is as clear and well-defined as her more polished work: crisp sentences, atmospheric landscapes.

“The idea was to start in New Orleans and from there we had no plan.” This book of essays sends the reader right back to the 70s, with Didion on the road or at the writing desk, yet there’s a sense of timelessness, as if the era these notes were written in wasn’t half-a-century from this.

Divided into two portions—South and, of course, West—the notes in each section seem to write more towards the emotional quality, evoking the feeling of a place or a memory. A person could easily read South and West in a single afternoon, each place Didion stops, from Biloxi to Gulfport to Clarksdale, painted like watercolor with broad brushstrokes. “[E]ndemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life: Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die,” or headed out of the city “there is the sense of swamp reclaimed to no point….Shacks along the road sell plaster statues of the Virgin Mary.”