Theroux’s “Deep South” a vivid contemporary portrait of rural life

In the fall of 2012, travel writer Paul Theroux set out for the American South, almost 50 years after the civil rights summer of 1964. A veteran traveler accustomed to “clattering trains, the slow boat, the scooter rickshaw,” buses, trolleys, ferries and trams, for the first time he hit the road in his car.

For his 10th travel book, “Deep South,” the New England native, 74, decided to steer clear of big cities and the “Old Magnolia South,” sticking to the “Lowcountry, the Black Belt, the Delta, the backwoods, the flyspeck towns” in rural Mississippi, South Carolina, Arkansas and parts of Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia.

The cumulative four seasons worth of road trips resulted in a deeply affecting, personal account of a region Theroux says held him “sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.”

Anchoring the journey are three main destinations: country churches, gun and knife expos and restaurants, where Theroux closely observes and interviews the locals — residents, workers, farmers, writers, store owners, reverends, mayors, community developers. Their stories reveal what it was like to grow up during Jim Crow, how much progress has been made or lost since then, and how, in wastelands devoid of any economic pulse, people still cling to hope.

The Southern church, Theroux finds, is “the beating heart of the community, the social center, the anchor of faith, the beacon of light, the arena of music, the gathering place, offering hope, counsel, welfare, warmth, fellowship, melody, harmony, and snacks.” He attends uplifting Sunday services, hangs out with the congregation before and after, shares daily specials at local chain restaurants with the preachers.

During sit-down meals at soul food diners and “barbecue joints,” Theroux makes friends, discovers the joys of catfish and fried chocolate pie (“We wrap it in pastry and deep-fry it crispy.”), and gives us Southern favorites seen through Northern eyes: “a deep tray of okra, as viscous as frog spawn, next to a kettle of sodden collard greens looking like stewed dollar bills.”

He never misses a gun show, an opportunity to take the temperature of the white underclass in a cloistered world set apart from the disappointment and failure they live with. “Beleaguered, weakened, their backs to the wall … all they talked about was the Civil War, and they were oppressed by that and everything that had happened since.”

And at every bend in the road, Theroux finds “fractured communities and dying towns,” meets people “as hard-up and ignored and helpless as any I had seen in the world” and compares them to countries in Africa, where “hundreds of millions in aid” shame the paltry thousands allotted our own backyard. Riding shotgun, the reader becomes both passenger and witness.

His skill at welding the personal to the historical enlivens current headline news — gun control, the Confederate flag, church burnings, lingering racism, skyrocketing unemployment. A visit to the grocery store in Money, Miss., where Emmett Till was murdered, reminds Theroux of a letter he and his brother wrote at the time to Till’s killers: “We’re coming to get you. You’ll be sorry.” His repeated stays in Indian-owned motels reveal how Gujaratis have flocked to the South in a mass takeover of one of the few industries still standing.

Theroux’s relaxed, intuitive route allows for serendipitous encounters. During an appointment with a bank officer, a colleague unexpectedly reveals that she was married to the late B.B. King. A cancellation by an author at a literary festival in Little Rock leads him to a talk by Congressman John Lewis instead — and to explain the importance of Lewis’ graphic civil

rights history, “March.”

“Reading made me a traveler,” says Theroux, “travel sent me back to books.” Much of his travelogue describes his surprise at finding a South never written about in “the freakish and darkly comic” tales of Faulkner and Caldwell, Capote and O’Connor. In stand-along “interludes” about Faulkner and Southern fiction, he explores how “black life, the racial rejection, and the peasant misery only obliquely enter these narratives.”

Southern dialect may be one of the only things Theroux doesn’t get right about the South. But chalk up his cartoonish interpretations — “Ahmo just leave mah money heah fo y’all” — to his Yankee ear; it’s a genuine attempt to convey the friendliness, the musicality, of country folks.

Readers expecting the misanthropic, waspish Theroux of, say, “Dark Star Safari,” won’t find much of him here. “This trip was not about me,” he says, “an autobiographical diversion about my moods and petty successes.” In these faded backwaters where no one knows him, he happily conceals his expertise, letting his subjects do most of the talking. “What sort of things do you write, Mr. Thorax?” asks one curious librarian.

Perhaps it’s the car, allowing him to follow where his heart leads. Maybe it’s his age, or the fact that ultimately this is his country and he takes the plight of its people personally. Whatever it is, the alchemy of the South works its magic on him. Some of us might say he ends up with a dog in this fight.

At the end, reluctant to leave, “lingering, driving slowly and stopping often, procrastinating,” Theroux wishes he could continue rolling ever deeper across the land, like the Mississippi River, “the Old Man” he sees himself in. “The paradox of it all was that though I had come so far … I had never left home.”

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