Books

Original Sins Coiled Like Snakes in Joan Didion’s New ‘South and West’

Joan Didion © Brigitte Lacombe

In 1970 Joan Didion spent a month driving through the rural South with her husband. She found swimming pools, endless heat, and, most of all, snakes. On the road from New Orleans to Port Sulfur they run over three snakes in an hour’s time. Later, they see mailboxes on top of twisted rigid chains, to prevent snakes from scaling them. There is, Didion writes, “a sense of water moccasins.”

In Birmingham she is informed that the way to catch rattlesnakes is to drip gasoline into their holes and wait for them to emerge, drunk on fumes. One rainy afternoon, they stop to visit a reptile house and the writer leans against an apparently empty cardboard box, only gradually realizing that the hissing she takes to be the sound of rain is actually coming from the Copperhead coiled inside the box. Snakes, like the summer torpor, the insularity, and the bedrock racism, are presented as a regrettable, but inevitable fact of life in the South, one that requires Didion to “deaden every nerve” in order to get out of the car whenever they stop for gas, but which the residents she encounters find entirely commonplace.

Didion’s notes for this trip, undertaken in the hopes of writing a piece that never materialized, are now being published, along with notes on California, in a slim book called South and West. The “West” part, written when Didion traveled to San Francisco to report on the Patty Hearst trial (for a piece that was also never published), also references snakes: “rattlers in the dry grass,” a woman chopping a snake in two with an axe, the familiarity, to Didion, of “common trees and snakes.” It is not surprising that snakes wend their way through so much of Didion’s writing, silently menacing, intimating evil. She has made a singular career of finding the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, insinuating guilt and an impending reckoning that will find us all sinners beyond salvation.

In the “South” part of the book, that original sin takes the form of slavery, the effects of which feel raw and ubiquitous. Confederate flags decorate towels (Didion buys one, and later, her daughter prefers it over the more expensive, tasteful items in the linen closet); KKK is painted on a railroad sign; Didion senses a “time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”

In an introduction to the book, Nathaniel Rich writes, “two decades into the new millennium, a plurality of the population has clung defiantly to the old way of life… As Didion herself noted nearly fifty years ago, their solidarity is only reinforced by outside disapproval… They have resisted the premise that white skin should not be given special consideration… The force of this resistance has been strong enough to elect a president.” Didion, as well, posits that her findings in the South portend bad things for the country at large not because it is hamstrung by its troubled past, but because it represents “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.”

The assumptions Didion holds about the advances of modernity — that a woman can travel alone; that a bikini is acceptable poolwear; that people of different races can share meals and address each other by their first names — are received as faddish notions. Several people she speaks to want to leave the South, but can’t; others have left, then returned. There is, she suggests, an elemental pull towards the region, an inexorability one can only resist for so long. Repeatedly she attempts to do some real reporting on the trip, but is continually thwarted by her own ennui. “I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead,” she writes. “I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.”

Unable to pinpoint the source of this enervation, she blames the heat, which is paralyzing, liquid, and makes the small towns she visits seem to hang suspended, motionless. But this sense of inanition, Didion discovers, is an illusion. Beneath the stultifying heat and the impression of time unchanged for centuries, there is that secret, malevolent, energy, hissing like a snake in a box of dead skins.