In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. -Joan Didion, South and West
It’s becoming that time of the year where rains are frequent and dead animals rot fast and nights are damp and dark and quiet. Summer in New Orleans. It’s hard to pinpoint its feel, other than hot and troubled. Fortunately someone else has ventured into this literary territory; Joan Didion’s new book South and West contains notes from a road trip she took with her husband in 1970, starting and ending in New Orleans, exploring towns and cities in Mississippi and Alabama in-between.
The book was short and good. It is almost like a little collection of “casual observances” around the South, which, because they’re Joan Didion’s observances, are interesting. And the book hits home for me for a couple reasons. First, her impressions ring eerily true to the atmosphere of New Orleans (and the South) today – which is saying something, given that she traveled here nearly fifty years ago. She picked up on things that I have often felt, but haven’t quite been able to articulate:
It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy… The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness.
…In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect.
I have always felt that “nature” here is conceptualized very differently than in, say, New England, or California, or places where people go outside to get fresh air and hike and dream and invigorate themselves. “Nature” for me in NOLA feels more formidable and oppressive, less like an entity to lose my consciousness in and more like something I could physically lose my body in. The same could be said of traveling around the South in general. It’s not like renting a car in, say, New Zealand, or Croatia, or Oregon, where beautiful and exciting things manifest themselves on a frequent basis. This is the South. Didion’s book certainly suffers from lack of action; there are many sections that are slow and vaguely boring and completely gaping in plot. But on some level, I think, that’s entirely the point of it.
Didion took the month-long jaunt around the South thinking she’d write an article about it (hence all the notes). But you get the sense that she was ultimately disappointed. She confesses at one point that she didn’t want to drive to Jackson because it had one of two major airports (the other being in NOLA) and she knew she’d succumb to her desire to hop on a plane and get the heck out of the South. Her trip ended on a bitter note, an argument with her husband and a silent night spent in an airport motel. She never wrote the story.
…All the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them. I never made an appointment with the bridal consultant of the biggest department store in any town I was in. I never made the Miss Mississippi Hospitality Contest Semi-Finals, although they were being held in little towns not far from where we were, wherever we were. I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month.
And this is the second reason why this book hits home. I too took a road trip around the South in the summer (last summer, to be exact). I too took notes, recorded conversations, thought there might be a story. I never produced or published the story. Part of that is because I, unlike Joan Didion, am not a professional writer; but part of that is perhaps inherent to the nature of this place. New Orleans might fall into another category, and perhaps I am just making excuses for myself, but the bulk of the Southern feel – especially in the summer – contains the kind of melancholic somnolence that promotes porch-sitting over reporting, apathy over emotional investment, personal pleasure (bordering on a numbness) over personal growing pains. The energy that is required to report, construct, and publish pieces feels somehow heavier, more exerting, when the humidity reaches 100%, when the atmosphere is literally pressing down on you. “The weather around here must shape ideas of who and what one is, as it does everywhere,” Didion writes. Indeed, it does. The summer contains a darkness here. And it is difficult, I think it’s fair to say, to maintain a certain level of fire underfoot, the flames of ambition, the definitive sense of purpose to your work when the air is heavy with “death by decay.”
I can’t help but wonder what advice Joan Didion would give to an aspiring writer spending the bulk of her mid-twenties in the South. Perhaps she’d say, Get out of the South. Or perhaps she’d say, Who cares if the atmosphere is hot and slow and sad? Stop dwelling and get on with it! I would love to know. You always hear about how New York is the place that tests young artists, the place where you have to be composed of a tougher kind of substance to succeed. But what about the South, in the summer? (And making money as a landscaper, laboring outdoors by day and writing by night? Is this foolish and ultimately debilitating, or is region and atmosphere somewhat irrelevant at the end of the day?)
And perhaps I’m simply over-thinking it. My roommates and I were talking last night about the onset of the summer; one of them, who is from France, knew exactly how I felt; but the other, from Mexico, just laughed. “I’ve lived here for nine summers and it’s been fine,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Who cares? It’s just hot.”