South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion

Most of South and West is composed of notes Joan Didion took during a month-long road trip through Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama in 1970. She intended to publish something about the trip after returning to California, but didn’t. Now selections of her notes have been published. She’s such a good writer that her impressions are worth reading, but I can see why she didn’t finish the project. 

She hated the place. 

I’ve read a few reviews of this book but none of them conveyed her intensely negative feelings about the landscape, the weather and the culture she encountered along the Gulf Coast and in the Deep South. It’s a region she’d never been to. She makes it feel like a unpleasant foreign country that she couldn’t wait to escape. She even claims that she and her husband avoided big cities because if they’d been near an airport, they would have immediately flown to California or New York. If you don’t think much of the South, this book will confirm your attitude, even though the its word were written almost 50 years ago.

The book concludes with a small selection of notes from another project she didn’t complete. She had agreed to write about the Patty Hearst trial in 1976: 

I thought the trial had some meaning for me – because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.

I enjoyed this part of the book too. It’s mostly random thoughts and memories about growing up as a privileged young woman in Sacramento, mixed in with some thoughts about San Francisco, where the Hearst trial took place. Having grown up in California, I like reading about it and nobody writes better about California than Joan Didion.

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Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53]. 

On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald

The German writer W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, so he had no memories of World War 2. But memory was one of the principal themes of the books he wrote. In 1999, he published the long essay “On the Natural History of Destruction”. Its subject is the Allied aerial bombardment of Germany in the final years of the war, or rather the failure of German writers to properly document and reflect on the effects of that bombing on Germany’s civilian population. Sebald believed that such horrible events deserved to be discussed and written about clearly and honestly. Instead, the survivors of the bombing avoided speaking about it and few German writers addressed the subject at all, or if they did, they did so poorly. Sebald doesn’t defend the German government and doesn’t spend much time criticizing the morality or the rationale behind the bombing. He is trying to understand what the experience was like for the German population and why the memory of it doesn’t seem to have been directly confronted.

There are three shorter essays in the book, each dealing with a writer who lived through the war, none of whom are well-known in America. The essay about the bombing, which is actually titled “Air War and Literature”, is the one that is worth reading.

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

The Fire Next Time, published in 1962, is a brief book. It begins with a short “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation” and concludes with a longer “Letter from a Region in My Mind”.  It relates some of Baldwin’s experiences, but it’s real subject is racism in America:

This past, the Negro’s past, of rope, fire, torture, castration, infanticide, rape; death and humiliation; fear by day and night, fear as deep as the marrow of the bone; doubt the he was worthy of life, since everyone around him denied it; sorrow for his women, for his kinfolk, for his children, who needed his protection, and whom he could not protect; rage, hatred, and murder, hatred for white men so deep that it often turned against him and his own, and made all love, all trust, all joy impossible – this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and conform a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering – enough is certainly as good as a feast – but people who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives his effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth – and, indeed, no church – can teach. He achieves his own authority…. The apprehension of life here so briefly and inadequately sketched has been the experience of generations of Negroes, and it helps to explain how they have endured and how they have been able to produce children of kindergarten age who can walk through mobs to get to school [pp. 98-99].

It’s easy to say that Baldwin exaggerates sometimes, but nobody who hasn’t been part of an oppressed minority can say what it’s like to be told over and over again, in violent and non-violent ways, that you’re not as good as other people. Baldwin points out that his ancestors were brought to America decades before millions of immigrants whose descendants think of themselves as the “real” Americans. Racism truly is one of the fundamental factors in American history (just look at how people voted seven months ago).

The Fire Next Time concludes:

If we – and now I mean the relatively conscious whites whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others – do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!

If Baldwin were alive today, maybe he wouldn’t fear America’s end in hellfire and damnation. Then again, given the current crisis, maybe he would.

Here Is New York by E. B. White

E. B. White was a longtime writer for The New Yorker, although he is probably better known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He was also a co-author of that little book we were told to buy in school, The Elements of Style, often referred to as “Strunk and White”. In 1948, White wrote a long essay about New York City for Holiday magazine. Even with an introduction by White’s son-in-law, the writer Roger Angell, it makes for a very short book. Today, a more accurate title for Here Is New York would be That Was Manhattan.

As White points out, Manhattan never stands still, so particular places White describes are no longer there. I didn’t think the writing was as astonishingly good as some have said, but White gets the feeling of Manhattan, even today, exactly right. I won’t offer a summary. I’ll just quote one line: “It is a miracle that New York works at all”.

Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga by Hunter S. Thompson

Before he became famous as the “gonzo” journalist who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, and before he became the model for the drug-addled, gun-crazy Uncle Duke in Doonesbury, Hunter S. Thompson spent a year hanging out with the Hell’s Angels, the infamous California motorcycle gang. The resulting book was published in 1966. 

Much of it is devoted to downplaying the media coverage of the group as bloodthirsty savages who left a trail of destruction everywhere they went. On the other hand, Thompson depicts them as violent losers, not very bright, mostly interested in their motorcycles, being part of the gang and getting high. He got to know some of them fairly well, but that didn’t stop one of them from abruptly punching him one day, after which several more joined in, sending Thompson to the emergency room. That experience probably colored the last paragraph of the book:

It had been a bad trip … fast and wild in some moments, slow and dirty in others, but on balance it looked like a bummer….I tried to compose a fitting epitaph. I wanted something original, but there was no escaping the echo of Mistah Kurtz’ final words from the heart of darkness: “The horror! The horror! … Exterminate all the brutes!”

I read Hell’s Angels after reading an article in The Nation that said Thompson had predicted the rise of Trumpism, i.e. a movement of “left-behind people motivated only by ‘an ethic of total retaliation'”. There are, in fact, a few places in the book where Thompson takes a step back and provides that kind of sociological overview. Thus:

… nobody who has ever spent time with the inbred Anglo-Saxon tribes of Appalachia would need more than a few hours with the Hell’s Angels to work up a very strong sense of déjà vu. There is the same sulking hostility toward “outsiders”, the same extremes of temper and action… [159]

The attack [on a 1965 anti-war demonstration] was an awful shock to those who had seen the Hell’s Angels as pioneers of the human spirit, but to anyone who knew them it was entirely logical. The Angels’ collective viewpoint has always been fascistic. [248]

To see the Hell’s Angels as caretakers of the old “individualist” tradition “that made this country great” is only a painless way to get around seeing them for what they really are – not some romantic leftover, but the first wave of a future that nothing in our history has prepared us to cope with. The Angels are prototypes. Their lack of education has not only rendered them completely useless in a highly technical economy, but it has also given them the leisure to cultivate a powerful resentment … and to translate it into a destructive cult which the mass media insists on portraying as a soft of isolated oddity, a temporary phenomenon… [258]

A toad who believes he got a raw deal before he even knew who was dealing will usually be sympathetic to the mean, vindictive ignorance that colors the Hell’s Angels’ view of humanity. There is not much mental distance between a feeling of having been screwed and the ethic of total retaliation, or at least the kind of random revenge that comes with outraging the public decency….[258-59]

Sociologists call it “alienation” or “anomie”. It is a sens of being cut off, or left out of whatever society one was presumably meant to be a part of…. In the terms of our Great Society the Hell’s Angeles and their ilk are losers – dropouts, failures and malcontents. They are rejects looking for a way to get even with a world in which they are only a problem… The difference between the student radicals and the Hell’s Angels is that the students are rebelling against the past, while the Angels are fighting the future. [260]

Certainly, many Trump supporters are indeed fighting the future. Although the average Trump voter had a higher income than the average Clinton voter, many of Trump’s supporters are struggling and feeling left behind (as are many of Clinton’s). But just as many of his supporters are trying to hold on to what they have (e.g. nice lives in the suburbs) or what they think they deserve as white, “Christian” Americans (i.e. better lives than everyone else).

So the book was usually interesting, if a bit repetitious, and Thompson could certainly write, but as a guide to modern America, it doesn’t deliver much.

I Am Brian Wilson: A Memoir by Brian Wilson with Ben Greenman

Brian Wilson was the brilliant creative force behind the Beach Boys before his life went sideways. In recent years, he’s had a successful solo career, mainly because he found the right woman to marry and got the mental health treatment he needed.

This memoir is quite good, even better than I expected. Reading it feels like you’re seeing the world from Brian’s perspective, as his recurring thoughts and memories, good and bad, come and go. The book is divided into chapters that bring some organization and chronology to the story, but at times it’s like listening to his stream of consciousness.

Never having heard him speak for any length of time, because he is famously terse in interviews, I wondered if his “voice” was really coming through. I think it was. Brian and his co-writer should be very proud of what they’ve accomplished. They’ve given us an informative look into the mind of this extremely talented man.