You can almost pinpoint the moment when a callow fashion editor in the terrarium-like Manhattan magazine establishment became Joan Didion. It was 1965. Most of Didion’s acute, melancholy, stealthily well-reported essays, later collected in Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album, were still over the horizon. She had just married John Gregory Dunne—the now sadly overshadowed author and screenwriting partner she would mourn, shatteringly, in The Year of Magical Thinking 40 years later. The two of them had decamped from New York to Los Angeles and rented a caretaker’s house in Rancho Palos Verdes, on a huge property with nothing much to take care of. She was on deadline to write a Saturday Evening Post profile of Helen Gurley Brown, the author of Sex and the Single Girl, whom she had just followed around on the Los Angeles leg of her 13-week book tour.
Didion might well have led this never-anthologized article with some observation about how her subject was dressed, or with an unguarded moment supposedly symbolic of the real “Mrs. Brown.” Instead she spends a good page or so quoting from the uniformly idiotic callers on a late-night L.A. radio segment devoted to Brown’s book. There and then, like Athena born out of the headlands of Southern California, the mature Didion is suddenly executing one of her quintessential left-field entrances. Already she’s writing as much about L.A and herself as about her ostensible subject. Already she’s going native.
Didion’s other uncollected pieces in out-of-the-way places far outnumber her collected ones. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem she cannibalizes a trimmed version of that talk-radio scene for her canonical grab bag essay “Los Angeles Notebook”—the same one in which she observes that the Santa Ana wind “shows us how close to the edge we are.” (The rest of Helen Gurley Brown she tosses to the seagulls.) Lost in library stacks, too, are Didion’s book criticism in National Review, waggish film reviews for Vogue (including one of The Sound of Music imputing an illicit affair between Maria and the Mother Superior), and the Points West column for the Saturday Evening Post, which she took turns writing for years with her husband. By then the couple were living on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, the company town where they kept themselves in health insurance by writing scripts and biting—in several articles about the movies as perceptive today as ever—the bejeweled hand that fed them. Didion wrote about Southern but also Northern California and her native Central Valley, about the underground press, about the Getty when it opened, her marriage, John Wayne, and the Summer of Love. Like most of the “new” journalists who made their bones in California during the ’60s (Tom Wolfe, Pauline Kael, even Hunter S. Thompson), she had a contrarian, conservative streak. She nursed a reluctant nostalgia for the certainties of her pioneer ancestors. Her first nationally published short story was called “Coming Home,” and she later wrote a plangent essay called “On Going Home.” Even when she couldn’t be sure whether she was coming or going, her persistent subject remained the elusiveness of home, the difficulty of storytelling around a hearth gone cold.
Didion’s writing remains a hope chest of influences that, luckily for us, she never outgrew. As a girl, she copied out Hemingway by the yard, and his incantatory rhythms underscore some of her phrasing like a heartbeat. From Joseph Conrad, whose Victory she has referred to as “maybe my favorite book in the world,” Didion inherited the knowledge that no narrative exists without a narrator, no picture without a frame. She employs at least three sometimes overlapping but fairly distinct styles. There’s the witty, ostentatiously literary, quotation-heavy, glittering early work for Vogue in New York, where she made her hajj after graduating from Berkeley with a B.A. in English. Since the early ’80s, we’ve also had the political Didion, including her globe-trotting fiction, foreign reporting, and the withering media criticism that journalists and voters alike should reread every election season.
In between, there’s been what people usually mean when they throw around the word “Didionesque”: the long, radiologically introspective sentences that anybody who thinks seriously about Los Angeles still cherishes, wrestles with, and, self-consciously or not, measures himself against. Her biographer, Tracy Daugherty, a fitfully gifted writing professor from Oregon State University, piles up way too many ungainly, slavishly Didionesque flourishes in his new book about her, The Last Love Song. It’s as if he’s channeling her through a severely sketchy spirit medium. But Didion is alive, 80 last December, and has beaten him badly on most of the old stories worth retelling. Whom would you rather read on L.A. mobility? The woman who wrote Play It As It Lays, and once defined the freeway as “the only secular communion Los Angeles has,” or a guy who refers to Kael’s native Petaluma as Central California and uses the disorienting phrase “north of La Brea”?
No one here is suggesting that an out-of-stater couldn’t write a perfectly wonderful Joan Didion bio. (Not out loud, anyway.) Geographic infelicities aside, Daugherty is smart, works hard, and occasionally turns a decent phrase, as when he writes that “[t]he sixties kept ending and not ending.” In The Last Love Song Daugherty is at his best whenever he does what Didion would never dream of doing: take her prose apart carefully and poke at it to see how it works. After beavering away among Didion’s drafts of Play It As It Lays in Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, Daugherty notes that “[h]er rough draft paragraphs were stippled with ‘x,’ ‘xx,’ or ‘xxxx,’ indicating words to come—syllabics more crucial than content, at first.” He’s usually a close listener to this especially musical writer, and it reaps dividends for him. He astutely cites Didion as a virtuoso of what we might call the sentence with a chicken bone stuck in its throat. A chicken bone sentence is one that—interrupting itself for the longest time, whether between dashes, commas, or parentheses—sounds like this one just did. But Daugherty misses how influential this maneuver has become, as ubiquitous now as the O. Henry ending or the Chandler simile. This omission is another example of how Daugherty, for all his enlightening leg- and spadework, too often gets the lyrics of The Last Love Song right but misses the melody.
Of course, more readers will ransack the index in search of juicy tidbits than sit still for interesting grammatical asides. But dish-digging fans may find themselves disappointed, even a bit protective of Didion. We hear more than we want to know, but less than Daugherty can prove, about her inability to conceive. He confirms what she’s already admitted in Blue Nights, that she wasn’t always the best mom to her late adopted daughter. He gets her first serious boyfriend to talk, though we learn more about him than about her. Daugherty also claims that Didion and Dunne’s courtship was pragmatic, without “grand passion.” Only toward the end do we discover that, after four decades together, Didion still savored the way Dunne held her hand whenever they flew. Moments like those are what are missing from too much of the book: a sense of what it’s like to be with her. Also near the end, the novelist and screenwriter Josh Greenfeld marvels, “Joan—she was the best person to compare writing stories with…. The drama she created. What an entertainment!” Where has this Joan Didion been for 468 pages?
As with Didion’s Palos Verdes transformation a quarter-century before, you can pinpoint the moment when the savvy, beach-tempered genius of L.A.’s ’60s and ’70s journalistic corps stopped being that Joan Didion. It was 1988. She and Dunne have just drifted, not altogether volitionally, back to Manhattan. Her beloved editor, Henry Robbins, has died, and now she has to break in a new one. The New York Review of Books asks Didion to fly back to California to witness the campaign of the surging presidential candidate (and, briefly, Jerry Brown running mate) Jesse Jackson. She deplanes, boards the press bus, and according to a 2006 interview, “I was just in tears the whole way…Los Angeles was so beautiful, and I had given it up.” There, back for the first time on the highways of L.A., on her way to South-Central, she loses it. She will soon write the first of several terrific stories about the rendering plant that is our political process, but you would look in vain there for much about Los Angeles or, perhaps not coincidentally, for much about herself. For Didion, even if she still has friends FedEx her Meyer lemons and fresh tortillas whenever she gets homesick, L.A. is no longer part of the story.