Lest we forget, amid the bright lights, famous faces and star-spangled banners, there isn’t one homogenous America, but an enormous number of hugely varying regions stitched together into a single nation. Consequently, Theroux finds the difference between his Massachusetts home and the world he discovers driving through the South just as vast as when visiting the world’s developing nations.
He arrives in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas full of intrigue, taking advantage of their proximity to revisit the same towns in every season, gaining an understanding of the region in a way he can ill afford during trips to the rest of the world. And as he readily admits, he eventually becomes hooked on the place (‘I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me’).
Removed from the sterile world of air travel, with its security checks and predictable schedules, Theroux’s delight to be on a trip where he need never flash a passport is palpable. The descriptions are warm and intimate, like stumbling back in time to a place where conversation is most people’s principle daily pastime and the pace of life slows to a crawl. As always his interactions are poignant and insightful, and none are included without purpose. The picture he paints of the South is of a place with its own character, its own identity and its own approach to life.
And yet, as he gets further and further under the skin of the South – visiting the churches, the diners, the gun shows – this romanticism gradually gives way to a harsher and more brutal reality. The overriding poverty becomes more and more apparent. So too the tension, the injustice and the overwhelming sense that people feel ignored by much of the rest of the country. He is treated with warmth, but, being a northerner, simultaneously with suspicion. Despite his best efforts, even the great Paul Theroux is unable to truly blend in.
“He is treated with warmth, but, being a northerner, simultaneously with suspicion. Despite his best efforts, even the great Paul Theroux is unable to truly blend in”
Everything in the South is about race. Even subjects that aren’t about race are all about race. Because integration and civil rights have been such historically divisive issues, so everyone has their own stories to tell, their own version of events. Many suffered, some simply witnessed the suffering. But few have nothing to say on the matter. It still consumes people’s lives in a way that couldn’t be imagined further north. The extent of the racial divisions he exposes feel astonishingly archaic; black people not being welcomed into white churches, for example, or church burnings, or the ongoing popularity of the Ku Klux Klan – stories which belong at least 50 years ago.
The depth of poverty he observes all over the South underlines the awareness we have, but can rarely fully appreciate, of how the richest country in the world can be failing to such an extent to care for such large numbers of its population. He constantly compares decrepit buildings, struggling families and other images of poverty to places he has visited in Africa and other parts of the developing world, and understandably doesn’t hold back in his criticism of the degree to which many towns he visits have been overlooked by richer parts of the country. Fairly or unfairly, this includes repeatedly putting the spotlight on local boy and two-term leader of the free world Bill Clinton, whose multi-million dollar foundations appear to have done nothing to help struggling people in the southern towns he grew up in.
There’s an overarching intimacy that’s hard to put your finger on. The people he speaks to are so open, so engaging, so at ease, that we feel drawn into their world entirely. Is this in part because of the nature of southerners? Perhaps, although the way Theroux makes this a feature of all his books indicates that it’s as much to do with his own engaging manner.
Only a writer possessing Theroux’s particular way with words could have the ability to adjust their gaze and comment just as perceptively on their own country, even if he is still many hundreds of miles from his actual home.
DEEP SOUTH by Paul Theroux; Hamish Hamilton; £20 (hardback)
This review was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine