What does Joan Didion's 1970 Gulf Coast road trip have to do with Tuesday's episode of "The Real O'Neals"?
On the day of KENNY's sister SHANNON's confirmation, boyfriend BRETT (Sean Grandillo) approaches KENNY (Noah Galvin) in the hallway of St. Barklay Church, carrying a small gift-wrapped box. (Watch the clip here.)
KENNY: Hey! [They kiss.]
BRETT: I brought a gift. Is that weird?
KENNY [smiling awkwardly]: No, great wrapping job! [Pause, turns serious] Uh, look, I have to talk to you.
KENNY: Yesterday, you said, 'I love you.' Which, which was so incredible to hear. And then I said it back. Which wasn't [hesitates] entirely true.
KENNY: Because, while I feel so many amazing things for you, love just isn't one of them, yet.
BRETT: I knew you were freaking out. I --
KENNY: No, that's -- You're my first boyfriend, and I don't know how I'm supposed to be feeling, or how fast I'm supposed to be feeling it. I, I don't want to screw this up. Can you forgive me?
BRETT: Yeah. Sure. [Pause] Then maybe we should hit the pause button.
KENNY: What? No, Brett that is not --
BRETT [handing gift to KENNY]: Tell Shannon I said congratulations. [Turns around and walks quickly off.]
-- from "The Real Confirmation," Episode 13
of Season 2 of ABC's The Real O'Neals
"Do you ever miss those times when we used to hide all our secrets and swallow our feelings?"
Funny how things connect. As I wrote Wednesday, the considerable pleasure I was taking in Tuesday night's episodes of The Middle and especially The Real O'Neals kind of slammed into the New York Review of Books review-essay by Nathaniel Rich, "Joan Didion in the Deep South" (in the March 9 issue; unfortunately only an abstract is available free to nonsubscribers), of a highly unusual new offering from one of the most important writers of our time.
I hadn't known anything about the new Didion book, South and West (scheduled for publication on March 7), which turns out to be different from anything she has published before. It is, if I've got this right, a direct look at her work process: the notes she partly wrote and partly assembled for two writing projects that never came to fruition.
The "South" part is the record of a month-long trip along the Gulf Coast that Didion took in summer 1970. By way of background, Nathaniel Rich notes:
Joan Didion explained her decision to visit the Gulf Coast in a 2006 interview in The Paris Review: “I had a theory that if I could understand the South, I would understand something about California, because a lot of the California settlers came from the Border South.”Rich goes on to observe:
It is a counterintuitive theory, for the South and the West represent the poles of American experience—the South drowning in its past, the West looking ahead to distant frontiers in a spirit of earnest, eternal optimism. “The future always looks good in the golden land,” Didion wrote in “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” “because no one remembers the past.” In the South no one can forget it.Understanding her native California has, of course, been a life-long preoccupation for Didion, and the notes that make up the "West" portion of the new book derive from a 1976 visit to San Francisco covering the Patty Hearst trial for Rolling Stone, when she "found that she wanted mainly to write about her own childhood and the West’s conception of history."
SO WHAT ARE THESE "NOTES" OF DIDION'S?
This requires a considerable effort of explanation, but the short answer, as Rich puts it, is that "South and West offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls." Here's his more extended background:
Didion’s notes, which surpass in elegance and clarity the finished prose of most other writers, are a fascinating record of this time. But they are also something more unsettling. Readers today will recognize, with some dismay and even horror, how much is familiar in these long-lost American portraits. Didion saw her era more clearly than anyone else, which is another way of saying that she was able to see the future."[E]ven in its most casual iteration," Rich notes, "Didion’s voice, with its sensitivity to the grotesqueries and vanities that dance beneath the skim of daily experience, is unmistakable." And he provides lots of description and example.
South and West is, in one regard, the most revealing of Didion’s books. This might seem a far-fetched claim to make about an author who has written about her ancestry, her marriage, her health, and, with painful candor, her grief -- Didion’s readers are, after all, on familiar terms with the personal details of her life. But the writing itself -- the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance, elevating personal experience into universal revelation -- has an immaculacy as intimidating as Chelsea porcelain. South and West offers for the first time a glimpse inside the factory walls.
For each piece she reported, Didion converted pages of loose-leaf notebooks into scrapbooks of material related to her theme. She inserted newspaper articles and other writers’ works, like C. Vann Woodward’s “The Search for Southern Identity,” biographical summaries, lists of suggested themes, and overheard dialogue, which often seems taken from one of her novels. (“I never been anyplace,” says a Biloxi woman, “I wanted to go.”) In her notes we learn of her “reporting tricks,” which are less tricks than an intuitive genius for locating the people in a given community who will best reveal its character: the director of the local College of Cosmetology, the white owner of the black radio station, the bridal consultant of the largest department store.
The notebooks also include transcriptions of her observations, which she typed at the end of each day. These notes represent an intermediate stage of writing, between shorthand and first draft, composed in an uncharacteristically casual, immediate style. There are sentences that are ideas for sentences, paragraphs that are ideas for scenes: “The land looks rich, and many people from Birmingham, etc. (rich people) maintain places here to hunt.” “The country way in which he gave me names.” “The resolutely ‘colorful,’ anecdotal quality of San Francisco history.” “The sense of sports being the opiate of the people.” “The sense of not being up to the landscape.” The effect can be jarring, like seeing Grace Kelly photographed with her hair in rollers or hearing the demo tapes in which Brian Wilson experiments with alternative arrangements of “Good Vibrations.”
SO WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH THOSE ABC SITCOMS?
Well, with The Middle, not so much. In this case it's just that, for a show that I like so much, as I've written here a number of times, I'm surprised to find myself even fonder and more impressed in Season 8, with all three of the Heck children showing fascinating signs of perhaps surprising and yet (for me) totally believable and rather inspirational growing up -- and now even the senior Hecks, Frankie (Patricia Heaton) and Mike (Neil Flynn) having to roust themselves to catch up. The process has been so smartly and humanly as well as entertainingly executed that I've found myself wondering whether the suits at Disney-ABC have even noticed what's going out over their airwaves. Hey, it is Season 8, after all. The Middle has always, in its wry way, thumbed its nose at the psychotic bullshit of America's own Family-Values Fascists, but in this late flowering it's articulating a vision of how people actually develop which would have the FVFs boycotting ABC if they weren't so savagely obtuse.
Which brings us to The Real O'Neals. You know the network suits are paying close attention here, because the subject matter is potentially so explosive for a sitcom. It's another show built around a family with a mom and dad, Eileen and Pat O'Neal (Martha Plimpton and Jay R. Ferguson), and three offspring (Matthew Shively as Jimmy, Noah Galvin as Kenny, and Bebe Wood as Shannon), all beautifully delineated and with the various interrelationships carefully characterized. But what everyone knows about it is that in last season's pilot episode Kenny O'Neal, then 16, came out to himself and his family as gay.
That by itself would have been sufficient to cause an uproar, and the Christian Right exploded on cue. Not least because the situation wasn't presented as a psychiatric emergency but as a natural development -- and almost the least of the O'Neal family's problems. In fact, as we entered the O'Neals' lives, Eileen and Pat were coming to the realization that the one thing most sorely lacking in their marriage was a divorce (a deficiency that has since been rectified). Even more subversively, in the O'Neals we met a family that -- as rigidly enforced by Eileen -- was so hilariously devoted to maintaining the image of a model Irish-American Catholic family that the family was in danger of falling apart when the image turned out to be just that.
I imagine there was more apoplexy on the Crackpot Right when, after a 13-episode first season, The Real O'Neals was rewarded with a second season. Yet here it is, maybe not the most significant but another of those things that just a few years ago would have been utterly unimaginable. Or maybe the fact that it's now possible to do such a light-hearted sitcom about such once-barely-touchable subject matter is one of the more significant markers of how much the culture has evolved, in some ways almost unrecognizably so.
AND WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH JOAN DIDION?
We have to go back to Nathaniel Rich, and his careful depiction of the play of values Didion encountered in the Deep South of 1970.
There is a long tradition of northern visitors seeing in the Gulf South an atmosphere of perpetual decline, in which “everything seems to go to seed.” Didion quotes Audubon’s line about “the dangerous nature of the ground, its oozing, spongy, and miry disposition,” though you could go back to 1720, when a visiting French official described the territory as “flooded, unhealthy, impracticable.” Didion is on narrower footing, however, when she describes her central thesis:
a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.How could the hidebound South, in its perpetual disintegration and defiant decadence, at the same time represent the future? Didion admits the idea seems oxymoronic, but she is onto something. Part of the answer, she suspects, lies in the bluntness with which Southerners confront race, class, and heritage -- “distinctions which the frontier ethic teaches western children to deny and to leave deliberately unmentioned.” In the South such distinctions are visible, rigid, and the subject of frank conversation.
After looking a bit at the nature of that "frank conversation," Rich writes:Do you see where Rich is heading? What in fact Joan Didion was already foreseeing in 1970? It's going to take us one more post to get there. That should happen Sunday.
This kind of thinking seemed retrograde in the Seventies. From the vantage of New York, California, even New Orleans, it still seems so today. But this southern frame of mind has annexed territory in the last four decades, expanding across the Mason-Dixon Line into the rest of rural America. It has taken root among people -- or at least registered voters -- nostalgic for a more orderly past.