Deep South by Paul Theroux
Review by Nate Duke
Home is hard to see sometimes, and its problems easy to overlook and forget. Fortunately, Paul Theroux’s latest book lends new eyes to this native Southerner, and to readers who’ve never been south of the Potomac River. In a narrative that is richly woven with details and anecdotes from history, literature, and local memory, Theroux examines the South less like a renowned travel writer, and more like an informed sociologist. He shares the culture and scenery of our rivers, fields, and mountains, but this book is really an examination how different people respond to or ignore the South’s pervasive issues.
After driving down from his native Massachusetts, Theroux begins Deep South in South Carolina, and moves gradually west to Arkansas over the course of multiple journeys. He does not seek the “Old Magnolia South” of mansions and immense wealth, but the South of extreme poverty and corporeally present history. He says of the project, “I was travelling for my usual reasons, out of restless [sic] and curiosity, and to see places that were new to me.” Having never been to the Deep South, he says, “I want to see these states, not flying in but traveling slowly on the ground, keeping to back roads.” He avoids the cities in general, because they “did not relate to each other and did not in the least resemble anything in the surrounding countryside.” This leads him to the parts of Dixie that many of us have comfortably forgotten.
The general formula for his exploration is a planned meeting with a community leader or civil servant who then introduces him to the poorest or most maligned people in the most neglected areas. This process leads him to Orangeburg and Allendale, South Carolina. These are examples of towns that had their once-busy main street traffic diverted away by the interstate system, their businesses outcompeted by supermarket chains with low prices due to efficient national distribution. These two phenomena, along with the Confederacy’s shadow of racism, are the recipe for most Southern ills that Theroux examines. Yet these communities remain, somehow, and their residents are forthcoming with Theroux about their lives. In Allendale he meets with Wilbur Cave, a man involved in county revitalization, who says of the decrepitude, “Nowadays, this is as country as it gets.” Theroux remarks, "'Country' was one way of putting it. Another might have been 'This is what the world will look like when it ends.'"
Theroux juxtaposes alarming descriptions of poverty, regressive opinions, and social decline with stories about the people fighting against socioeconomic problems and the legacy of the South’s violent history. He meets with a group in Jackson, Mississippi, part of whose work involves combating the Delta’s “bank deserts.” These are areas where people are trapped in poverty due to lack of financial institutions to grant loans for a house, a car, or a business. This is an example of one of the strengths of Deep South— it informs on problems that the uninitiated might be oblivious to. In Greensboro, Alabama, Theroux meets with volunteers he describes as “the sort one might find working in Third World countries,” fixing houses and helping to start small businesses. They meet with varying degrees of success, as one of their lead organizers catalogues local resistance to change with the words, “Now and then someone walks past and spits on me.”
Theroux makes a few separate journeys to the Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and finally Arkansas, meeting people on one trip and revisiting them on the next. He divides these travel narratives with three engaging and thorough essays titled “The Taboo Word,” “The Paradoxes of Faulkner,” and “The Fantastications of Southern Fiction.” Deep South is worth picking up for these interludes alone. “The Taboo Word” is especially strong. The South’s complex relationship to the N-word is couched in an etymological study of the word itself. Theroux approaches it rightly with respect: “I can’t think of another word in English that has such singular force: to speak it is to breathe fire.” He then blends his global experience with Southern cultural literacy:
As a taboo, it is not a forbidden word to all but only to some, as in the Polynesian instances where the sanction applies to commoners but not to nobles… If the word were simply a racial slur, it would be forbidden to everyone who spoke it. As rap music shows, it is often used joyously. Because of this social complexity, the word has more power now than it has ever had.
This is a sample of Theroux at his best. Between descriptions of down-to-earth interactions with various denizens of Southern streets, he makes keen observations born of a long and thoughtful life.
Overall, Deep South is insightful and informative, though Theroux does little to push back against Southern stereotypes. He remarks on the phenomena of Southern motels and gas stations being operated by Gujarati Indians named Patel, the football fanaticism of Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, and the blatantly segregated nature of southern churches and gun shows. Theroux writes, “What made a Sunday in the south complete was a church service, a gun show, or a football game.” Theroux could have presented a more holistic picture of the Deep South had he spent some time in its cities, which are just as critical to understanding the region as the small communities that Theroux compares to the “third world.” His privileging of the rural over the urban South might lead a non-native reader to the problematic assumption that they do not interact with and inform one another.
Still, Deep South, while not encyclopedic, is entertaining and highly informative. Theroux invites the reader to join him as he travels “for pleasure, for a door-slamming sense of 'I’m outta here,' for a change of air…for the voyeuristic romance of gawping at the exotic.” With his car, his books, and his wit, the author shares an intriguing, at times disconcerting, picture of a region that is often forgotten or ignored.
About the Author:
Paul Theroux is the author of many highly acclaimed books. His novels include The Lower River and The Mosquito Coast, and his renowned travel books include Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He lives in Hawaii and Cape Cod.
About the Reviewer:
Nate Duke is pursuing an MFA in poetry at the University of Montana where he is on the editorial staff for CutBank. He is an alumnus of the Oxford American's editorial internship. You can find his work in Red Cedar Review, Driftwood Press, and elsewhere.