It’s a well-worn tactic for writers dealing with the American South to dig out their Portable Faulkner for a taste of the old master’s pungently decorative perorations in order to parse the region’s peculiarities. In his deeply immersive and complex travelogue Deep South, Paul Theroux is seemingly no different.
A Yankee who never spent much time below the Mason-Dixon line, particularly not with his travel-writer specs on, Theroux interleaves his chapters on visiting this hamlet and that with ruminative interludes. One on Faulkner shades the rest of the book. The line that Theroux can’t escape from — none of us can, really — is maybe the scribe of Oxford, Mississippi’s most memorable commentary, illuminating how the weeds of memory entangle the whole region:
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.
It’s a sensation that Theroux returns to, but not in the way that boosters of the “New South” would prefer. From one region to the next, he digs into the mostly ignored American rural underbelly. There he finds that the scars of racism and poverty are painfully visible, having been repeatedly slashed open by resentments and long memories. Adding to this burden, he finds that the economic devastation of globalization has robbed much of the South of even the ability to work for misery wages in a factory or cotton field; so much so that many old-timers reminisce about working the cotton fields and speak with pride about how many pounds they could pick in a day. The past isn’t past; it’s right there in his face.
Except for Faulkner and another excellent interlude on the “fantastifications” of Southern literature, Theroux steers clear of that whole Southern shtick of dangling moss, time standing still, hospitality, and perspiring glasses of ice-cold lemonade on the front porch. It’s not the easiest thing. This is a region that trades on its clichés more than any other part of America. That is in large part because, unlike the Great Plains, the South just has more clichés to work with.
Theroux steers clear of the decorously rehabbed downtowns and tourist districts, all those nuggets of nostalgia darkened by loss. “I kept to the Lowcountry,” he writes, “the Black Belt, the Delta, the backwoods, the flyspeck towns.” He meets preachers, farmers, gun nuts, Christian biker missionaries, football fanatics, septuagenarian writers, and Gujarati motel owners all named Patel. He starts his long, wandering drives through a racially divided region in the Fall of 2012 during the upswing of Barack Obama’s second campaign. But that political backdrop doesn’t appear to be on his mind as much; though race is the book’s most enduring theme next to poverty.
At first, he’s more excited about the thrill of traveling differently than he had been used to. Instead of having to endure “the persistent nuisance of a succession of airports … for a brief interlude of the exotic”, he relishes the comforting freedom of just tossing some provisions into his car and hitting the road without a specific destination. Writing with an insouciance that would get under the skin of the average “I’m not a tourist, I’m a traveler” would-be citizen of the world, he extols the joys of traveling in his own country, and not as a blinkered nativist but as somebody who’s been everywhere and knows of which he speaks:
…only in America can you travel in confidence without a destination: the humblest town has a place to stay, probably on its outskirts, probably a beat-up motel; and a place to eat, at best a soul food diner, but probably a Hardee’s, an Arby’s, a Zaxby’s, a Lizard’s Thicket, or a disenfranchised chicken place reeking of hot oil, but friendly.
This freedom of travel doesn’t leave Theroux in a strictly celebratory mood. He has obstacles to face in his home country. Most particularly there’s that American friendliness, which is always present in his visits, but frequently gets brittle when the wrong subject is broached. “We are a naturally welcoming people,” he notes. “Americans will talk all day, but they are terrible listeners and have an aversion to probing or any persistent inquisitiveness by a stranger.”
Theroux disproves that early warning time and again. Perhaps simply out of a natural inquisitiveness or a career spent having to get by with the help of strangers, he forms fast friendships in town after town. Whether it’s the the black farmers in Arkansas grousing about getting loans from white bank officers or the Reverend Eugene Lyles who runs his barbershop with a tight economy, Theroux gets people to open up about their lives and how the past looks so much like the present.
He’s fascinated and disturbed at finding deprivation that mirrors what he has seen in his Third World travels. One blighted stretch in South Carolina reminds him of backcountry places in deepest Africa, uncared for, and forgotten. Unlike those parts of the world, he continually reminds the reader, there are no NGOs with global funding trying to help out the American South. He insists on using a word that most Americans, in our stubborn belief in the myth of a classless society, would recoil at: “Peasant”. This is a class he finds all over the South.
It’s hard to think of any other word to describe the stolid and passive citizens he comes across who have nothing, never have had anything, and expect even less. In Arkansas, he pointedly asks numerous people in desperately poor small towns whether they had ever received help from the Clinton Global Initiative, run by their famous native son and ex-governor. The answer is no.
Given that Theroux stays away from metropolises where such things can be papered over, the sins of the past and present are right there for him to examine. The question of race is everywhere, particularly regarding schools. It seems to be a question without an answer.
Practically everybody he comes across has a story about when the schools were desegregated in that part of the country, and especially how the result was frequently just a majority black public school and a new white private school. It’s a classic case of an old family argument where everybody talks about the issue but there doesn’t seem much prospect of it being solved. Theroux illustrates the region’s myopia on the issue by noting how even Faulkner, who appeared to tussle so rigorously with the South’s tangled history, managed to ignore the crucial fight to desegregate the university in his backyard as it was happening.
Race and the South is the question lurking in the mind of almost everybody Theroux talks to. It’s so present, it’s almost less a question than the atmosphere. But it’s a complex history that he isn’t able to untangle even in his repeated visits to the region. Later in the book, just when he seems to be getting the hang of things, he comes across a book event where John Lewis is speaking. Trying to introduce himself to a coterie of black people at the event, he’s brushed off like some lunatic. Belatedly, he realizes how the unasked-for appearance of a schlubbily attired old white man at a gathering where everybody else is dressed in their finest could stir up the wrong associations.
The South that Theroux finds isn’t exactly still fighting the Civil War, but for many of the whites he comes across, the conflict is still a piece of living memory. He’s accosted by a woman in Vicksburg who seems to be channeling some kind of past life post-traumatic stress disorder from the Union siege of the city. “You [Yankees] made us eat rats,” she growls at him. He finds that same stubborn memory at the gun shows he frequents, with all its beleaguered men stuck in a “persistent memory of defeat”.
Theroux is intently fascinated by the South’s deep-seated problems, and how it seems “catastrophically passive, as though fatally wounded by the Civil War.” He’s insulted as an American by the flyspeck towns and struggling poor left to fend for themselves. But it doesn’t put him off. He almost can’t help but be charmed. It’s a fascinating departure of tone for this frequently dyspeptic chronicler of distant lands. “The South had me,” he writes, “sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.”