Slouching Towards Joan Didion in Tracy Daugherty’s ‘Last Love Song’

Lee Polevoi

 

The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion

Tracy Daugherty

St. Martin’s Press

728 pages

 

It must be challenging to write a biography of a living figure, and doubly so when that individual has written so extensively about events in her life, traumatic and otherwise. Yet this is the challenge veteran literary biographer Tracy Daugherty has taken on. To his credit, he largely succeeds.

 

Early on, Daugherty lays out a personal “manifesto” for approaching the life of Joan Didion:

 

“When presented with the private correspondence, diaries, journals, or rough drafts of a writer, I remain skeptical of content, attentive instead to presentation. It is the construction of persona, even in private—the fears, curlicues, and desires in any recorded life—that offers insights … [Didion’s] work does not merely inform or misguide us about her; it enacts her on the page, reproducing her mental and emotional rhythms. Any serious work about her should seek to do the same.”

 

Like Didion, he adds, “I have kept in mind the limits of narrative, but … I see no reason not to attempt what very well might end up in failure.”

 

It’s just as well that Daugherty relies on a close reading of her work, since the writer and her close friends declined to cooperate with this venture. No one can say the biographer shied away from obstacles others might have considered insurmountable.

 

Born and raised in California, Joan Didion has written at least one iconic novel, Play It As It Lays, and several groundbreaking works of nonfiction, including the essay collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and The White Album. As definitive impressionistic works of the 1960s, they should endure well into the future.

 

Probably Didion is best known for her late-career memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. In this book (later adapted for, of all things, the Broadway stage), she recounts the harrowing experience of losing her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, and their beloved adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, within the space of little more than a year.

 

The Last Love Song draws extensively on these and her other books to fill out the narrative. It might be argued that reading The White Album and other original works is a more “efficient” approach to understanding the arc of Didion’s eventful life. But Daugherty stakes a claim for a deeper understanding, at times consciously mimicking her unique style:

 

“… I trust her literary methods will apply to her just as she pressed them on others—Joan Baez, Nancy Reagan, Dick Cheney, the ‘Joan Didion’ in her novels—revealing the bedrock beneath layers of myth, gossip, PR, self-promotion, cultural politics, competing notions of human nature and the purposes of biography.”

 

 

At times, this approach seems to lead the author astray. While describing Didion’s father and his troubled emotional life, Daugherty digresses for several pages about Letterman General Hospital, where Frank Didion was treated in the early 1950s. It turns out a man named James Alexander Hamilton underwent medical training there, and would later pursue “mind-control experiments on human subjects using LSD, THC, and a long-acting atropine compound called BZ.”

 

Even recognizing that to go too far down this particular path might “risk losing hold of our narrative,” Daugherty speculates on links involving the CIA, the kidnapping of Patty Hearst, the emergence of the West Coast counterculture, and so on. Fortunately, he pulls back in time and for most of The Last Love Song avoids further such asides.

 

He’s on surer ground describing Didion and her husband’s inadvertent prescience in relocating to Los Angeles from New York during the ‘60s, just in time for the end of the Haight-Ashbury era and the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders engineered by Charles Manson. Didion’s presence at this sordid cultural epicenter paved the way for her fiercely insightful essays and helped readers understand that, in fact, no genuine understanding of those chaotic times was really possible—a valuable lesson then and even more so now.

 

Equally fascinating is his account of the Didion-Dunne marriage (and literary partnership), and the slow, unhappy decline of their health and fortunes. A great sadness hovers over the final pages of the biography, and is likely to compel readers to read Didion’s own accounts in Year of Magical Thinking and its successor, Blue Nights.

 

For this alone, The Last Love Song should earn a place on her loyal readers’ bookshelves. 

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is working on a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash.

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