Friday, May 12, 2017

Joan Didion goes South

Portions of this were previously published at

There is a conversation in Joan Didion's newest book that shows much of how Alabama has changed over the last half century.

Didion, famous for her non-fiction observations on California in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" and "The White Album," spent the summer nearly 47 years ago in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In July 1970, she was in Guin, Ala., eating at a diner, when she asked for iced coffee. 

"The waitress asked me how to make it," she writes. '"Same way as iced tea,' I said. She looked at me without expression. 'In a cup?' she asked."

I laughed at how one can now buy iced coffee at gas stations in the most rural parts of the state. Several scenes in Didion's "South and West" play out like this, and to read it is like taking a trip back in a time machine. Didion and her husband made a swing through Alabama that year looking for something, and her observations are recorded in the book.

Didion made notes for a piece that was never published. She didn't come South because of desegregation or murder trials, but because she had "only some dim and unformed sense... that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center."

Her trip begins in New Orleans, continues into Mississippi and through Alabama. She visits the Mississippi Gulf Coast just after the devastation of Hurricane Camille, long before casinos, when the only gambling is illegal and in the pinewoods. She buys a Rebel flag beach towel in Biloxi. As she crosses over into Alabama, she is greeted with a sign: "782,000 Alabama Baptists Welcome You!"
Instead of movie sets and the halls of power, Didion roams the Demopolis Library, the Eutaw City Hall, and has dinner at The Club in Birmingham. Her bikini draws attention at a motel, she surveys a Walker County cemetery's tombstones and she sweats talking with women in a laundromat in Winfield.

It's hot. Air conditioners whir in the background everywhere they are found. She is stymied by blue laws that close everything on Sunday and restaurants that rarely stay open past 8 p.m. Ice is hard to come by. The food is fried, everywhere. The Jackson Five and Neil Diamond play in the background at roadside stops. Men brag about hunting. Women chat about housework and soap operas. The white southerners, especially in Mississippi, are reflexively defensive about their state's image in the media. There is a constant squeamishness among the locals about alcohol that would amuse our present craft beer connoisseurs.

In Tuscaloosa, she sees several different bumper stickers - "Red Tide, Crimson Tide, Go Tide, Roll Tide." In all the small towns, she writes, the most "resplendent" part of the high school is the gymnasium, which seems to carry the hopes of the community.

 "Athletes who were signing 'letters of intent' were a theme in the local news," she observes, long before signing day press conferences.

I am old enough to dimly remember some of this, when it was nothing to drive through a small town and see most of the older men in overalls. When white people tossed around bloodcurdling racial slurs in the presence of blacks they worked with and everyone laughed - for vastly different reasons. All of the book's moments fit in with the traditional view of the South -where hardbitten manhood is celebrated in sports and recreational activities, genteel womanhood venerated even in the drudgery of washing clothes, where clear borders of class and race survive, and lurking behind every corner are the specters of the Lost Cause and how the rest of the nation views this defeated, backward section.

But something else is going on, beyond the pages. At the same time Didion came South, most of the region's public schools were finally undergoing a largely peaceful segregation after a decade and a half of adamant and occasionally bloody opposition. Only two years before, Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered in Memphis. Five years before, marchers were beaten on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Fifteen years before, Emmett Till's body was found floating in the Tallahatchee River. The South was still in a throes of an absolute transformation.

There is also an interesting theme that runs through Didion's encounters, of a South straining to overcome its rural character and redefine itself. During an extended conversation with a Mississippi businessman, he talks about the unexploited territory for the big chain stores and restaurants, saying McDonald's isn't even in Meridian, a city of nearly 50,000. He calls the South "the greatest business opportunity in the country," pointing to the climate, low levels of union activity and the willingness of government to give tax breaks to attract business.

In his words, one can immediately see auto plants and parts assemblies decades down the road, and Dollar Generals and Walmarts yet unbuilt. One can see the tide of regional and national businesses that will choke off downtowns and populate strip shopping centers and malls. But Didion senses something in the ambition when she asks if not wanting industry is a death wish, or is wanting it? What is striking is how the South in these pages, where the Civil War still seems like yesterday, was disappearing just as she got it down on the page.

Didion isn't celebrating this South as much as marveling at how impervious it seems to what is happening in the rest of the nation. That insularity will not last though. An extended introduction by Nathaniel Rich laments that the Southern culture Didion writes about in 1970 has migrated out into the nation, as evidenced by the election of Donald Trump. It's not the first time I've heard that thesis, but I sense that is too pat an answer, as if battalions of ham-fisted Buford T. Justice clones seized power in voting booths throughout the nation. 

Much of the surface culture of what Didion wrote about doesn't exist anymore, and anyone who thinks the South has resisted new technology hasn't visited its major cities. To say so also ignores the cultural and societal shifts caused by the migration of professionals here from around the nation, and from the rest of the world. Big cities and rural areas have been transformed by mass migration from Latin America. Go to the major cities of the South and you will find as modern and as liberal a culture as in any other part of the country. Because of the ubiquity of popular music, films, television, streaming entertainment and other outlets, you can find Southerners in rural areas with barely a trace of a regional accent.

But the terrain of this small book nudges us with the idea that even as we form an image of the unchanging South in our minds, we are in the same moment walking through it, disturbing the air and the picture, rewriting its story with every step.

Set Your Fields on Fire

The award-winning novel by William Thornton
Available now

Some of the coverage of "Set Your Fields on Fire"

 You can order "Set Your Fields on Fire"for $14.99 through Amazon here.
It's also available on Kindle at $3.99 through Amazon here.
Read an interview I did with on the book here.   
Here's my appearance on the Charisma Network's CPOP Podcast. 
Here's an interview I did with The Anniston Star on the book. 
Shattered Magazine wrote a story about the book here. 
Here's a review of the novel by Robbie Pink.
This piece appeared in the Marietta (Ga.) Daily Journal.
Here's the write-up from The Birmingham Times.
Read a story for Village Living here.
This story appeared in The Trussville Tribune and this video.
Here's my appearance on East Alabama Today.  
Story and video from WBRC Fox6 here. 
Here's the write-up in The Gadsden Times on the book.
Read a piece I wrote for WestBow Press about writing the book here.
A piece about some inspiring works for me.
This is another interview with the fleegan book blog here.

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