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Deep South: Four Seasons On Back Roads by Paul Theroux

January 1, 2016


Paul Theroux has been writing about the farthest corners of the globe since the 1970s. With over fifty novels and travel books to his name, he has covered most of the world. My buddy Tim loves Theroux, and if you ask him which is the best, Tim lists about ten books. I’ve read some of Theroux’s essays, but not his books. I started with this one because it was new and, like most Americans, I hold some conflicted notions about the South—on one hand romanticizing it as a place of virtue, a land of natural beauty and good, honest people who appreciate a simpler way of life, the roots of great American art and music, etc.; on the other hand, stereotyping it as the torch bearer for some of America’s less dignified characteristics: racism, gun culture and poverty. Theroux sets off over four seasons, meandering the back roads, wandering from small town to small town, avoiding the tourist destinations, to talk to real people and see what’s what.

And what he finds is kind of a mix of all of the above. As he traverses the lowlands of South Carolina, through the black belt of Alabama into the delta region and eventually the Ozarks, he finds people steeped in traditions of all kinds—religious, musical, culinary, industrial. Some of the traditions are alive and well, others on the wane. He delves into the history of long-forgotten towns that will not resurge—their lifeblood has drained out, factories closing and moving overseas, entire industries in the twilight of their existence. He spends a lot of time with three big southern themes—visiting churches, attending gun shows, and talking to people about racism (including a stop in a “KKK town”).

Reviewers have two main criticisms of Deep South: 1) that it confirms stereotypes about the South and, 2) that Theroux has an agenda. The first seems like a bogus criticism. Unless one is questioning the accuracy of Theroux’s reporting, it is what it is. Although he returns several times, he is still reporting on a thin slice of the South. He stays out of the major cities, off the main highways, so his portrait is skewed rural. And his South is portrayed through the people he meets. Regardless of the number of interviews he conducts, the stronger, outlier views will be the ones that most flavor the gumbo. The bigots and racists are memorable, though he finds just as many, if not more, kind and compassionate people. It is a very incongruous, complicated mix, and to leave out aspects that might be considered stereotypical would be a crime.

In terms of an agenda, Theroux makes the point repeatedly that the poverty he sees rivals what he’s witnessed in other parts of the world. Yet the U.S. government sends so much aid to places like sub-Saharan Africa, while there is clearly so much help needed here. He constantly questions if the Clinton Foundation has invested any in the local communities (the consistent answer is they have not). It is a fair question, but may indeed belie an agenda—Theroux has been critical of the “Africa aid celebrities” (Bono, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, etc.) and the thinking (in his opinion misguided) that Africa needs saving, or needs the U.S. to save it.

But I think Theroux’s global POV is one of the strongest aspects of the book. The fact that he can compare a town in Mississippi to a town in central Asia is really interesting. And his analysis of the culture around an Alabama football game from anthropological standpoint is one of my favorite parts of the book.

Theroux’s a bit of a cantankerous personality, but I like him in the same way I like Edward Abbey. And he’s a damn fine writer, with a novelist’s talent for astute observation and strong imagery, like when he describes circling hawks as punctuation marks in the sky. This book has its flaws. In addition to the above criticisms, it is loose and often redundant and is light on the delightful discovery that makes travel writing great. Much of what Theroux writes are confirmations of what is already known of the deep South. That said, just on the strength of the writing, I could read him recount his meanderings forever.

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