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.