Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Deep South by Paul Theroux

We might have thought Theroux was done traveling after The Last Train to Zona Verde -- the end of that book saw Theroux almost deciding that, and definitely deciding to give up on journeys through Africa. (Which is a deeper cut for him than it would be for nearly anyone else in the world: Africa has always been central to his view of the world, from his early Peace Corps days, and was the place where he became a writer. Plus, you know, it's a gigantic continent filled with hundreds of millions of very diverse people -- a lot to give up.)

But, instead, he looked closer to home, and shifted his mode of travel. Theroux had always been a train man by preference and mass-transit guy in general, writing many times about how you really get to understand a locale by riding with the locals on their usual transport. But only weirdos and a few lefty cities use mass transit in the US: we're a nation alone in our cars. So Theroux drove through the American South -- in his own car, at his own pace, four times for the four seasons over the course of a year, driving out from his Cape Cod home to revisit mostly the same places repeatedly.

And that reinvigorates his work unexpectedly -- Theroux repeatedly comments on his new traveling style and love for his country in Deep South. But he's still the same writer, with the same concerns: the man who said the happiest humans are bare-assed is always going to be most concerned with the poorest, the most marginal, the ones on the edges and margins. (And, here as often in Africa, the ones with the darkest skins.)

Deep South is about the poor, forgotten South -- the mostly-empty towns, the struggling farms, the deep backroads, the poorest pockets of the poorest states of our nation. And Theroux doesn't belabor the point, but he knows -- and those of us who are willing to see already know -- that all of those people are black. And the fact that the poorest, most marginal Americans are black in the former Confederacy is no accident.

But it's a mostly joyful look: these aren't miserable people. Theroux talks with ministers and start-up farmers and aid-agency heads, folks who put their heads down and work hard for themselves and their communities. He repeatedly compares, say, Mississippi with Zambia, and wonders what the same amount of money we send to the latter would do for the former. He's realist enough to know it won't happen, but idealist enough to ask the hard question.

And these are interesting people. And Theroux is a master at listening to locals and making their concerns and thoughts and word choices live to a wider audience. So Deep South is almost a celebration, and entirely a loving look a half-forgotten corner of a man's own country, and the people who live there.

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