Don An­der­son

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The Last Love Song: A Bi­og­ra­phy of Joan Did­ion By Tracy Daugh­erty St Martin’s Press, 752pp, $54.99 (HB)

We met Joan Did­ion in the early 1960s, in the pages of her first novel River Run. We were in­stant con­verts. Some of us, in the 50 years that fol­lowed, bought each of her sub­se­quent 14 books, nov­els and non­fic­tion alike. We were and are Did­ion devo­tees, snap­ping her up as her es­says ap­peared in The New York Re­view of Books.

She wrote in her third novel, A Book of Com­mon Prayer, pub­lished in 1977: “The con­scious­ness of the hu­man or­gan­ism is car­ried in its gram­mar.” It has al­ways been her style, her gram­mar, cou­pled with her un­re­lent­ing in­tel­li­gence, which con­vinces. Here, in the ti­tle es­say from The White Al­bum (1979), is a pas­sage that made an in­stant and last­ing im­pact, as much due to its style as to its ar­rest­ing con­tent:

“I watched Robert Kennedy’s fu­neral on a veranda at the Royal Hawai­ian Ho­tel in Honolulu, and also the first re­ports from My Lai. I reread all of Ge­orge Or­well on the Royal Hawai­ian Beach, and I also read, in the pa­pers that came one day late from the main­land, the story of Betty Lans­down Fou­quet, a 26-year-old woman with faded blonde hair who put her five-year-old daugh­ter out to die on the cen­tre di­vider of In­ter­state 5 some miles south of the last Bak­ers­field exit. The child, whose fin­gers had to be pried loose from the cy­clone fence when she was res­cued 12 hours later by the Cal­i­for­nia High­way Pa­trol, re­ported that she had run af­ter the car car­ry­ing her mother and step­fa­ther and brother and sis­ter for ‘ a long time’. Cer­tain of th­ese im­ages did not fit into any nar­ra­tive I knew.”

As Did­ion’s much-ad­mired Con­rad had his nar­ra­tor Mar­low say in Heart of Dark­ness, “The hor­ror. The hor­ror.” But Did­ion, now 81, typ­i­cally does not per­mit her­self such ed­i­to­ri­al­is­ing, her devil be­ing in the de­tail. We, her read­ers, must make any con­nec­tions be­tween the as­sas­si­na­tion of Bobby Kennedy (and, by im­pli­ca­tion, of his brother JFK), the “hor­ror” of My Lai, and the aban­don­ment of Fou­quet’s five-year-old daugh­ter. What does “step­fa­ther” con­vey that “father” may not? What is sig­ni­fied by “faded blonde hair”? Poor white trash? (Did­ion has been ac­cused of snob­bery and elitism, a charge she strongly de­nies.) What are we to make of a woman who not merely reads but rereads “all” of Or­well on the beach, even if it be the pri­vate beach of the Royal Hawai­ian? What kind of “nar­ra­tive” (sig­nif­i­cant con­cept for Did­ion) are we trapped in? This is cru­cial for Did­ion who claims, “we tell our­selves sto­ries in or­der to live”.

Would we an­tipodean “left-lean­ing lib­er­als” have been so ad­mir­ing of Did­ion had we been aware back in the mag­i­cal 60s, as she re­veals in her fore­word to Political Fic­tions (2001), that in 1964 she voted, and voted “ar­dently”, for Barry Gold­wa­ter, an “au­then­tic con­ser­va­tive”?

“Had Gold­wa­ter re­mained the same age and con­tin­ued run­ning, I would have voted for him in ev­ery elec­tion there­after. In­stead, shocked and to a cu­ri­ous ex­tent per­son­ally of­fended by the en­thu­si­asm with which Cal­i­for­nia Repub­li­cans who had jet­ti­soned an au­then­tic con­ser­va­tive (Gold­wa­ter) were rush­ing to em­brace Ron­ald Rea­gan, I reg­is­tered as a Demo­crat, the first mem­ber of my fam­ily (and per­haps in my gen­er­a­tion still the only mem­ber) to do so.”

Per­haps lib­er­tar­ian might have been more ap­pro­pri­ate. As her cho­sen ti­tle for her first col­lec­tion of es­says, Slouch­ing to­wards Beth­le­hem (1968), in­di­cates, she has long been an ad­mirer of WB Yeats, and it might be just to salute her with the con­clud­ing lines of the Ir­ish poet’s Un­der Ben Bul­ben: “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horse­man, pass by!’’

Had we left-lean­ers turned our backs on Did­ion, due to ig­no­rance or the tyranny of con­cep­tual dis­tance, we would have been the losers. We would have failed to un­der­stand the na­ture of a cer­tain US con­ser­vatism, of what it means to be a Cal­i­for­nian, as Did­ion is first and fore­most. In On the Morn­ing af­ter the Six­ties (1970) she writes: “Most of us live the­atri­cally, but re­main the sur­vivors of a pe­cu­liar and in­ward time. If I could be­lieve that go­ing to a bar­ri­cade would af­fect man’s fate in the slight­est I would go to that bar­ri­cade, and quite of­ten I wish that I could, but it would be less than hon­est to say that I ex­pect to hap­pen upon such a happy end­ing.” Is “man’s fate” an al­lu­sion to An­dre Mal­raux and his ca­reer? Is Did­ion po­si­tion­ing her­self as an anti-Julien Sorel, or anti-Tan­credi Falconeri?

While some may feel con­cern that Tracy Daugh­erty in The Last Love Song is more ha­giog­ra­pher than bi­og­ra­pher, Joyce Carol Oates has ob­served, per­haps more tact­fully: “It is rare to find a bi­og­ra­pher so tem­per­a­men­tally, in­tel­lec­tu­ally, and even stylis­ti­cally matched with his sub­ject as Tracy Daugh­erty … is matched with Joan Did­ion.” The Last Love Song “is not a con­ven­tional bi­og­ra­phy so much as a life of the artist ren­dered in bi­o­graph­i­cal mode”. Kind of “Por­trait of the Artist as a Young (and not-soy­oung) Woman”? A warn­ing bell may sound for the less char­i­ta­ble when Daugh­erty be­gins his book in the first per­son: “One af­ter­noon in late Septem­ber 2011, I was rid­ing in a cab from Cen­tral Park West to JFK, read­ing Christo­pher Hitchens’s pro­file of Joan Did­ion in Van­ity Fair mag­a­zine, when the cab­bie, who had been mut­ter­ing about the pun­ish­ing price of gas, said wretch­edly, ‘I don’t know what hap­pened to this coun­try.’ ”

This open­ing para­graph is most as­suredly pas­tiche Did­ion, pure homage. Did­ion, born in 1934, has writ­ten about her pi­o­neer­ing Cal­i­for­nian an­ces­tors in Where I Was From (2003) while her most re­cent non­fic­tion books The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing and Blue Nights were pub­lished in 2005 and 2011 re­spec­tively. Pho­to­graphs re­pro­duced in The Last Love Song show an all-but oc­to­ge­nar­ian Did­ion as griev­ously frail. Yet she was ever frail, but wrote strong. Ac­cord­ing to Daugh­erty, Slouch­ing To­wards Beth­le­hem was writ­ten on “Dex­ies and gin”. As the fi­nal 112 pages of Daugh­erty’s bi­og­ra­phy con­sist of end­notes to ver­ify quo­ta­tions and para­phrases, he may be checked and thus be trusted.

The 586 pages of text limn not only Did­ion’s life, achieve­ments, and hon­ours, but also those of her hus­band, nov­el­ist and jour­nal­ist John Gre­gory Dunne, his brother Do­minick Dunne, writer and Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer, and the tragic life of Did­ion and Dunne’s adopted daugh­ter Quin­tana Roo Dunne. Did­ion’s hus­band and daugh­ter died, the for­mer sud­denly and un­ex­pect­edly, in 2003 and 2005 re­spec­tively.

The Last Love Song is a lov­ing ac­count of a painful life of dis­tin­guished achieve­ment. It is also a grip­ping Amer­i­can so­cial his­tory of the past 60 years. Per­haps triv­ially it is a re­source for trivia night ad­dicts. Which out-of-work Hol­ly­wood ac­tor-car­pen­ter headed the crew that ren­o­vated Did­ion’s Mal­ibu house in 1971? The same no-longer out-of-work ac­tor flew Did­ion in his pri­vate plane from New Jersey to Los An­ge­les where Quin­tana Roo was in the in­ten­sive care unit at UCLA. An­swer: Har­ri­son Ford.

taught Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney for 30 years.

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