“What is very powerful in my mind is how much poverty in one country resembles poverty in another country,” says acclaimed novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux. “Disenfranchised people, people with no work, people with no hope, and also how exploited the poor are at times, and how abandoned they’ve been by the powers that be, by companies, by the government.”
The number of books to Theroux’s credit (Mr. Bones: Twenty Stories; The Lower River, etc.) is very nearly the same as the number of years he’s been globetrotting: 51. Since joining the Peace Corps and heading to Africa in 1963, he’s chronicled his extensive explorations of third-world countries in nine acclaimed travelogues. In his 10th, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, that experience is brought to bear on his native country for the first time.
“I actually got the idea for traveling in the South when I was traveling in Angola,” says Theroux. “I wrote a book called Last Train to Zona Verde, and I was in Angola, seeing all these people in slums, people in rural areas, forgotten people—but also guys with baseball hats turned backwards, rappers, lots of hip hop, kids dressed like American kids—and I was thinking, ‘Meanwhile, what’s happening in America?’ ”
One autumn day in 2012, Theroux, who lives in Hawaii and Massachusetts, departed his Cape Cod home in search of answers. He drove for days, skirting cities, wending along back roads through forgotten towns of the Deep South—some which did, in fact, remind him of Africa in their desolation.
“The presence of Indian shopkeepers, the heat, the tall dusty trees, the sight of plowed fields, the ruined motels and abandoned restaurants, the inactivity, a somnolence hanging over the town like a blight—all these features made it seem like a town in Zimbabwe. It looked as though the colonizers had come and gone, the settlers had bolted, most of the local people had fled, and the place had fallen on evil days,” Theroux writes of Allendale, South Carolina.
But for every ramshackle burgh and sordid story—an account of Hope and Hot Springs, Arkansas, where President Bill Clinton grew up, is especially ghastly—Theroux manages to make contact with at least one kind soul. The first introduced in Deep South is a woman he meets in a Tuscaloosa, Alabama motel parking lot.
“You lost, baby?” calls a soft voice one car over. When Theroux explains that he’s a stranger to these parts, she responds, “Ain’t no strangers here, baby.” The woman, Lucille, insists on leading him to the Cornerstone Full Baptist Gospel Church—even though she’s waiting for her daughter, it’s three miles away, and her car’s in disrepair—and departs with a smile and the benediction, “Be blessed.”
Theroux is blessed with many more moving encounters: Reverend Virgin Johnson of Sycamore, South Carolina, invites him back again and again, to hear him preach and to break bread together at O Taste and See soul food café. Mayor Melvin L. Willis welcomes him to the Sam Chatmon Hollandale Blues Festival and fills his ear with dispiriting municipal matters. (The Mississippi town operates on a tax base of just $300,000 annually.) Theroux wins an audience with the former Mrs. B. B. King, the novelist Charles Portis—many others.
“That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome,” he writes. “I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace.”
His contacts can be as candid about history, racism, religion, and the right to bear arms as they are about soul food and music, genealogy, and their own ailments. And Theroux, by turns humorous and outraged, offers his thoughts on travel, politics, humanitarianism, aging, and literature. The aggregate material’s as rich as Mississippi Delta dirt and makes Deep South a profound and distinctive work.
While readers will undoubtedly enjoy playing passenger to such a capable guide, Theroux hopes to inspire them all to sally South and see it for themselves.
“The South is reputed to be rich in literature—and it is—but the way to see the South is to go there,” he says. “It’s not far away if you want to get in the car, it’s not very expensive. There are lots of inexpensive motels and restaurants. We have the best roads in the world. We have very friendly people, and there’s a lot to see. I would hope that anyone who reads my book would take a road trip in the South—I just say stay away from the cities. You don’t have to go to Atlanta or Birmingham or Little Rock. Stay in the country areas, get to know people, talk to them. It’s very illuminating.”Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.