As the current drought reminds us, and as Joan Didion wrote in 1977, “The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.”

This quote from her essay “Holy Water” demonstrates two of the distinguishing characteristics Tracy Daugherty identifies in Didion’s prose. First, and right on the surface here, is her commitment to busting our country’s dreamy self-mythologies. Second is her perspective as a writer of the West, which is important to recall since, thanks to her iconic essay “Goodbye to All That” and her bestselling memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she is frequently associated with New York. For Didion the relationship between mythology and the West has never been accidental: “The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.”

In drawing the reader’s attention to such aspects, Daugherty makes good sense of Didion’s work — personal essays, journalism, fiction, screenplays and all — extending the approach he took in previous biographies of Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller: “I had decided there was no point to literary biography if it did not seek to grasp what was said, and why, in a certain time.”

“The Last Love Song” hews closely to the facts, which readers of Didion will be broadly familiar with. But there are surprises, such as her appreciation of Zen and the book on Kobe Bryant she once planned to write.

Despite Daugherty’s research, Didion feels elusive. Which makes sense. Of all writers, she is not reducible to her events. Rather, as a public figure, she represents an orientation toward those events. James Atlas put it this way in a Vanity Fair profile: “Ever since she made her reputation in the late ’60s … Didion has been on the hot trail of the Zeitgeist. … In a way, she’s defined it.” Daugherty inverts this progression by passing from Didion as subject to Didion’s way of seeing, which he tracks primarily through her approach to narrative.

Think of the Didion for whom “The center was not holding” or the Didion who writes of the ’60s as “a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself”: This is the fashionably world-weary Didion who continues to resonate in the culture. More valued by Daugherty is the later, and less appreciated, Didion who turned her disillusionment with familiar narrative structures into a search for new ones that fit the times: “In the end, her frustration with a national story that never seemed clear … did not force her to reject narrative; it led her to believe that how we live could not be described in the usual manner, or discovered in the usual places. But that didn’t mean the story didn’t exist.”

In his elucidation of Didion’s development, Daugherty offers a detailed coloring-in of the self-portrait Joan Didion has drawn in her autobiographical writing. It confirms the achievements of her career and celebrates the experience of reading her exacting prose. “The Last Love Song” is a smart and gratifying book that gives us Didion’s world and brings us closer to her way of seeing it.

 

Scott F. Parker is a writer in Montana.