Review

The best part of the new Joan Didion bio 'The Last Love Song'? Joan Didion

Someday someone will write a biography worthy of Joan Didion, an author known for her razor-sharp insights and crystalline style. This is not that book.

Tracy Daugherty's "The Last Love Song" fails to tell Didion's story more deeply, revealingly or informatively than Didion has already told it herself.

Since 1968's "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," Didion's first nonfiction book and a seminal work of New Journalism, Didion has been as keen a chronicler of her own life as she has been an observer of the culture. It's something of a paradox: Didion makes clarity and distance feel intimate, often leaving blank spots.

Yet it's the thread of Didion's personal story within her cultural criticism and nonfiction books that has resonated most deeply with her readers. More than 40 years after her debut, she saw her greatest commercial success and won her first National Book Award with "The Year of Magical Thinking," a memoir of grieving after her husband John Gregory Dunne's sudden death. While that book is her most emotionally revealing, it, like all of her work, shows a unique ability to control the narrative, to keep some aspects of her life veiled, private.

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I don't know what the gaps might be between her published writing and the context of her life, but it's the job of a biographer to find out. In the case of a chronic memoirist like Didion, it's this exact space that presents the greatest opportunity for a biographer to tell the stories that, to paraphrase Didion, allowed her stories to live.

Sadly, Daugherty falls short. To build his narrative, he relies on previously published work — frequently Didion's own — to tell her life story.

So as he chronicles Didion's family history and youth in Sacramento, he is rehashing her memoir "Where I Was From." Similarly, he narrates her move to New York as a young woman by retelling "Slouching…" and her decampment to Los Angeles with Dunne by tapping her prescient take on the end of the 1960s, "The White Album."

In every instance, Didion, an unparalleled stylist, has told those stories better. And Daugherty has attempted to ape her style, an unfortunate, failed effort.

Didion is portrayed as an eternal daughter of the Golden State. Although Didion lived in Northern California for her first two decades and Southern California from 1964 to '88, Daugherty's emphasis is problematic on two counts. First, he doesn't really seem to know California: He writes that the (distinctly Southern California) Santa Ana winds blow across Berkeley, doesn't realize the Pasadena and Harbor freeways are the same thing and makes generalizations about Sacramento that omit its role as the state capital. And second, Didion has spent half her life in New York.

From the mid-1950s to the mid-'60s, writing for Vogue and elsewhere, she lived in New York City, and she has called Manhattan home for the last 27 years. In the book, Daugherty doesn't get the Didion-Dunnes back to New York until Page 464, with only about 150 pages of his narrative left to go. It's an unbalanced account, one that fails to explore how important New York is for her.

It's clear from the subjects Daugherty has picked for his previous biographies, Donald Barthelme and Joseph Heller, that his taste is good. But this book lacks a unifying idea; his critical take on Didion's work is mushy at best; Didion, her family and friends declined to be interviewed for the piece, so he didn't even get access.

What we're left with is a long, thinly researched clip job, knit together from previously published writings by Didion, her husband, his brother Dominick Dunne, and other published interviews and newspaper stories (including one by me). There are a scant few first-hand interviews.

Daugherty scores one with octogenarian Noel Parmentel, an off-again, on-again boyfriend of Didion's youth who appears to be the model for fictional dashing men she's written — but the two haven't spoken since 1977. He also interviews Sean Michael, Didion's step-grandson (the adult son of her daughter Quintana's husband), who sheds some light on Quintana's death at age 39, which despite being the ostensible subject of Didion's book "Blue Nights" remains hard to figure.

Readers interested in Didion would do better to re-read her books than invest the time in this patched-together biography. But there is something to look forward to: A documentary about her, "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live." A Kickstarter campaign for it successfully closed late last year, and it's being directed by filmmaker and nephew Griffin Dunne — with Didion's cooperation.

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The Last Love Song
A Biography of Joan Didion

Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin's Press: 752 pp.; $35

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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