“Reading made me a traveler; travel sent me back to books.” DEEP SOUTH is the tenth travel book by Paul Theroux. He has been around the world; this is his first travel expedition into the deepest parts of the United States’ rural south. He carefully, and often colorfully, describes such events as driving by the Family Dollar, noticing the “support coal” signs, stopping in to craft shops and budget hotels. His stops are disparate: often covering common themes, yet wide-ranged in their stories.
This book is much more than just about travel.
Theroux captures the events shaping a country, from the Indian doctors in Appalachia on H-1B visas, the voter ID bill, the waving the confederate flag, and the burning of churches. Keep in mind, he wrote this before Obama won his second election. Theroux’s observations and predictions continue to reverberate throughout the land today.
His travel log includes four separate trips to the south, in four different seasons of the year. Spaced between his trips are three interludes of his reflections, covering everything from the “n” word to Faulkner and the misnomer of Southern Fiction (include “gothic”). He’s both a well-read and a well-traveled man. We as readers are benefited from both.
BOOK OF PARADOXES
“And even in the poorest places in America, where there are shacks and rotting house trailers, the roads are wonderful.” One of the major themes of Theroux is the paradox of the South. The people are friendly, yet cautious. The churches are burnt, yet come back stronger. Colleges abound, yet racism is far from gone.
Theroux is timely poignant. He carries these paradoxes and waves them as flags of mystery. In one meeting, he talks about a lady whose daughter just earned her law degree. That ladies church in Greensboro was burnt down by the Ku Klux Klan. Yes, was around 2012, not the mid-1900s. Harvard Magazine states that there are “several dozen church-burnings per year”.
Not only is Theroux observant, he presents everything with documentation and examples from either literature or studies.
GOD AND GUNS
While most of Charleston’s tourists make their way to plantations or Fort Sumter, Paul Theroux goes to the Gun and Knife Expo. “No one on earth—none I had ever seen—is more polite than a person at a gun show…more eager to smile, more accommodating, less likely to step on your toe.” Here, though he is a stranger from out-of-state, he can buy an AK-47 for $1,500. A private sale.
Along with guns, God is prevalent. He is a driving force, a local passion. “What made a Sunday in the South complete was a church service, a gun show, or a football game.” Right up there with the passion for church was the passion for the pigskin. “Tuscalooga was in the grip of something more intense than a carnival.” “A riotous hooting tribal rite possessed the whole town…”
RACISM AND POVERTY
Theroux writes there is a Gullah expression, “Nu man, yanna weep-dee we dan-ya!” Meaning, “No man, you’re up there and I’m down here.” What is the most disheartening of his travels is the disparity of the land. He writes that there are 1 in 4 children in Arkansas considered “food deprived”. He points out that while groups like the Clinton Foundation sends hundreds of millions to Africa, Latin America, and India, not much gets funneled to help those in need in the South.
“When I checked, the figure for food insecurity in Arkansas was exactly the same as that for Sri Lanka, an island that was struggling to overcome the effects of a recent and long-lasting ethnic war.”
There’s a lot of overlooked history of the South. Such as Denmark Vesey, a slave who won the lottery and bought his own freedom in 1822. He led a slave revolt in South Carolina, larger than that of Nat Turner’s. Or that of the police shooting three black students dead as they ran away from their peaceful protest—just three years prior to Kent State. Orangeburg’s South Carolina State University’s protest was of racial discrimination (still persistent after the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act); Kent State’s protest was against the war.
AN OVERALL FANTASTIC TRIP
“Want some deep-fried pie?”
“Never had it.”
“You’ll love it. Chocolate pie. We wrap it in pastry and deep-fry it crispy. Why are you smiling sir?”
I really appreciated my time with Paul Theroux. Though I grew up near parts of the South and lived and taken trips there, I have not ventured nearly into the depths of Theroux. In retrospect, I would have loved an index. His stories are so disparate, including times where he would revisit locales. An index would have helped me go back and find what I was curious about. Footnotes would have been sweet, too. He often quotes from incredible sources, including many books I want to follow-up and read.
Books are for our adventure and fascination. Theroux fulfills their greatest promises in DEEP SOUTH.
DEEP SOUTH is already generating some great coverage:
NOTE: Steve McCurry took many pictures of Theroux’s trip that are in high-quality glossy pages in the back of this book. The reverend’s Bible and the home with no plumbing or running water are both McCurry’s pictures from this book.
Finally, here’s a quote from the book. Theroux about his travels to the South:
“What inspired my trip through the Deep South was the notion that as a traveler the people I had been meeting in Africa and India and elsewhere were more and more familiar to me. I am not speaking about the common humanity but their circumstances. Many Americans were just as poor as many Africans, or as confined in rural communities as many Indians; they were as remote from anyone caring about them, too, without access to decent housing or medical care; and there were portions of America, especially in the rural South, that resembled what is often thought of as the Third World.”