South and West
By Joan Didion
126 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $21.
The travel industry is largely made up of people talking about how wonderful a certain place or international program is, even if said place or program isn’t all that wonderful.
At one point in my life, to support myself and further my writing aims, I found myself working to further this deception — for an absolute pittance, which would appear to make the deception worse — but merely for the allure of the title. Until one particularly miserable experience where I could deceive no longer … thus bringing my travel writing career to a close.
That final assignment came to me while I was working as an English teacher (my day job at the time) in the beautiful Italian town of Polignano a Mare. I would take a week off and ferry across the Adriatic to Croatia to join up with something called “The Yacht Week,” where I would spend, yes, a week, hopping on and off yachts suffused with drunk, rich bastards partying it up like it was 1999 (albeit in 2013).
I would still be getting paid a pittance, that hadn’t changed, but this time my travel expenses would be covered. My living quarters were with the program’s volunteers — i.e. other rudderless youths who were getting basically nothing other than the opportunity to spend a summer in Croatia — but I could spend some time on the yachts, could attend the parties, could at least tell myself that I was writing.
So I jumped at it.
Cliques among the volunteers were already long-established thanks to previous summers together to serve the needs of well-off clients. My time spent on the yachts was even worse. The number of people I interacted with who weren’t staggeringly intoxicated plunged after 12 o’clock, and the disdain the locals had for the rich Americans and Brits who came to play was more than palpable.
I’d return to my bedroom to find complete strangers cavorting in my bed. There was nary a quiet moment.
I would have left early but I wanted to finish the piece, which I did, except that it addressed issues that the travel site that had hired me was none too interested in shedding light on — namely, the effect that this company and mass tourism more generally were having on formerly little touristed locales, the fact that the residents of the once-serene towns on the itinerary were all-too-open about the fact that they did want us there, and my own general disdain at the whole enterprise.
Of course, I had never been told that this needed to be a fluff piece, but I suppose that was obvious given the nature of the industry. As a result of my outpouring of negativity, the piece was never published.
I wondered, while reading “South and West,” whether that was why Didion’s own “notes” on the American South went unpublished for so long. It’s clear she hated pretty much the entirety of her month-long trip to Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Clearly, the tourism boards of those states would have squirmed if Didion’s urgent — and hysterical — desire to leave their states had made it into the pages of Esquire or The New York Times.
“I was afraid to get too near Jackson [Mississippi] because planes left from Jackson for New York and California, and I knew I would not last ten minutes in Jackson without telephoning Delta or National [airlines] and getting out. All that month I hummed in my mind “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” … and every night in our hotel room we got out the maps and figured out how many hours’ driving time to Jackson, to New Orleans, to Baton Rouge, to the closest places the planes left from.”
If Didion has anything positive to say about the South, it certainly got by me.
“It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?”
As someone who has spent a good deal of time in the South, I found the above passages absolutely hilarious — and very relatable. But there is also something I’ve always found fascinating about the South, albeit something occasionally dark and unpleasant, as Didion notes too. There’s a certain danger, an insidious violence, simmering beneath the veneer of Southern Hospitality. That the South has the highest execution rate per capita of any region in the country hints at that, as do more obvious indicators like the region’s avid Trumpism and its, occasionally, quite overt racism.
You can’t travel to the South without seeing the fervent, almost cult-like following the region’s college football teams have, so you can’t help but feel what Didion observes as “the sense of sports being the opiate of the people.”
If, as Joan Didion writes, the air in New Orleans “is heavy with sex and death,” then death — if not the sex — permeates the entire South and is something you constantly feel weighing on you, pulling you … or maybe that’s just the stifling humidity.
But I didn’t read this for an account of the South at all. It wasn’t all that long ago that I escaped the South, and I don’t wish to go back — not even in my reading.
I wish reviewers would more often state the reasons why a book appealed to them initially, so here’s mine. I’m visiting California right now, and there is probably no writer I associate more with California than Joan Didion. I found this in a bookshop and took the title, “South and West,” to mean something like “Southwest,” whereas in fact the “and” is most definitely key.
“South and West” is not about the South and the West, though, and the fact that the West is getting equal billing here is akin to Matthew McConaughey’s name appearing next to Leonardo DiCaprio’s on the poster for “The Wolf on Wall Street.” McConaughey was in that movie for no more than ten minutes and, likewise, the “West” gets 14 (14!!) pages here, which is a sneaky bit of marketing when you think about the lack of appeal a book called just “South” may have garnered. (though maybe “I Hate the Deep South,” would have driven more sales?)
Joan Didion is a great observer, which is what made her such a great writer, and that first quality — and occasionally the second — is very present here. These are scrambled, disorganized notes to be sure, only seeing the light of day because they have the name “Joan Didion” attached to them, but in them I found something like a bedfellow of travel miseries past.