Review: Paul Theroux offers fresh perspective on South

Paul Theroux visits places seldom written about and gives voice to people seldom heard.
Paul Theroux visits places seldom written about and gives voice to people seldom heard.

In 1982 literary critic James Wolcott wrote a review of a new book by the amazingly prolific Joyce Carol Oates. The review became famous as much for its title – “Stop Me Before I Write Again” – as for its dyspeptic content.

Many specialists on the American South reflexively feel the same way about travelogues as Wolcott did about Oates, for thousands of travel accounts relating to the region have appeared over the centuries. Many of those same specialists would likely feel worse still if they heard that the latest contribution to the genre had come from the amazingly prolific American writer Paul Theroux, author of close to 50 books, including a dozen travelogues. They’d view it as just another formulaic exercise – done without even having to get a passport stamped – by an aging (74-year-old) wordsmith, who had never before been in the “Deep South.”

The specialists, not for the first time, would be wrong, for “Deep South” is hardly a set piece, much less a “drive-by” account. Rather, Theroux – born and bred in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard – offers a fresh perspective on the region, visiting places seldom written about and giving voice to people infrequently heard.

In order to appreciate Theroux’s M.O. – he makes four trips to the region over a year-and-half period beginning just before the 2012 presidential election and, while there, spends most of his time in poor, rural backwaters – it is necessary to invoke yet another amazingly prolific writer, Nobel-winner V.S. Naipaul, with whom Theroux has had a long and complicated relationship for decades.

Naipaul, of course, is also a travel writer of note, who in 1989 penned “A Turn in the South,” an uneven, often superficial and cliché-ridden book about the region. “Sir Vidia” – Theroux’s erstwhile mentor before a notorious falling out, only recently and partially patched up – didn’t spend much time in the South, stuck mostly to cities and college towns, and neglected the trans-Mississippi South entirely.

Theroux takes an entirely different tack, spending lots of time in the region, particularly in its most impoverished areas, among people that time has seemingly forgot. Viewed in this light, Theroux’s belated foray into Arkansas – across the Mississippi, that is to say – on his fourth and last visit seems largely an effort further to distinguish his study from Naipaul’s.

Regardless of motivation, Theroux’s focus on impoverished places and poor people is exceptionally informative and extremely timely, offering readers insight into places and people well off the (New South) grid. While some of these places and people are in North Carolina (Lumberton, for example), most are located elsewhere – in forlorn rural areas such as Allendale, S.C., on desolate Highway 301, and similarly bleak parts of southern and central Alabama, the Mississippi Delta and the Ozarks. Revealingly, Theroux sees numerous parallels between the distressed places and people he visits in the South and destitute places and people in Africa and South Asia that he has written about in previous books.

Given the fact that the author was traveling through “the haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life,” “Deep South” is not a study in pity and pathos. Rather, the various (and varied) people he meets in backwater churches and convenience stores, and at gun shows, pawn shops and social-service facilities are resilient, and, generally speaking, they have been able to maintain a measure of dignity and a margin of hope. The book’s value is enhanced by several incisive interludes – meditations on Faulkner and on Southern literature more broadly – offered as lagniappes by the author, a splendid guest, who is welcome to return to the South anytime.

Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.


Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads

Paul Theroux;

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 441 pages