I have always loved travel books. I devoured them on my year out sailing through the Caribbean, reading most of the books written by writers such as Theroux and Palin, travelling through Africa and along the Trans-Siberian railway at the same time as I was sailing across the Atlantic.
Then, in recent years my focus changed, and I grew to love the travel books of long-distance cyclists, Dervla Murphy being the great example – and I read almost all of her travel books last year, exploring parts of the world that politics and war means I now cannot visit. But still, the theme – visiting strange, exotic places from the crowded, over-hot London tube, or curled up in bed with a cup of tea. I am always seeking out travel books and have read my fair share of incredible ones and also horrendously bad ones – one of which was actually my worst book of 2015!
My latest travel book was Paul Theroux Deep South, in which Theroux notes that although he has travelled the world and written books about it, there is so much of his own country that he has not yet seen, and so he sets off in his car to explore the American south.
Theroux rarely judges outright, he just reports (although often an implicit opinion is in the tone of his words!), and his real skill is with people. He digs deep down into them, gets them to talk, to tell him their stories, and then he quotes them, sometimes in conversations, other times just a few pages of that particular character talking. The other voices in all of his travel books are what makes them so memorable, so much more than just one person’s opinion. Added to this are his beautiful descriptions of place – long, lyrical descriptions of stunning landscapes.
In Deep South, Theroux travels the country in his own car, beginning by reminiscing on the difficulties of travel in other countries and the ease of travel by car in America – a love letter to American roads. But the differences in the ease of travel, for Theroux, mask many similarities between the south of America and other places he has travelled. There are frequent references to undeveloped countries he has visited previously – for example, a warning to drive up Highway 61 with “a full belly and a full tank of gas” and not to stop for any reason is compared to warnings Theroux was given when travelling through East and Central Africa. He compares poverty statistics and find that parts of the American south have lower life expectancy than developing countries and similar levels of food instability, amongst other poverty metrics, and he reserves special disdain for those from the American south who go to volunteer in Africa. With regards to a woman who’s son was volunteering in Zambia:
Suppressing a mocking laugh, I remarked to her that parts of Greensboro – the decaying houses, the areas of shacks, the dirt roads, the boarded-up shops, the Indian owned gas station and the moth-eaten Inn Motel, the many idle youths, the odors of wood smoke from burning blue gums and the pong of freshly plowed land, the red roads, the lumber mill – so much here bore a distinct resemblance to places in Zambia I had seen. And this being the case, why wasn’t her son provoked to do anything in Greensboro?
At this point I would like to note that I have read Theroux travel book through Africa, Dark Star Safari, and, like Deep South, I found it fascinating and beautifully written but sometimes overly simplistic, positing criticisms without even considering either the other point of view, or that there are many, many different factors contributing to the issue.
In Deep South, Theroux attributes a lot of the poverty to globalisation and the resulting decline in manufacturing in the region as companies move elsewhere to make their products more cheaply. He also implicitly criticises American governments for sending millions of dollars in aid abroad, while there are poor Americans often living in much the same conditions.
Much of the book is devoted to issues of race and racism, of systematic discrimination, areas where the KKK still exist and segregated churches and even university sororities. However, this is one area where Theroux doesn’t seem to judge. He merely presents, examining the impact of this on the poverty in th he south through the words of his subjects, but without assigning blame to, as one review put it “the usual suspects: white Republican rednecks”.
Deep South is not just a travel memoir, but also contains long digression, some a review of southern literature (and here, my ignorance, for I had not read any of the books Theroux spoke of, and had not even heard of some of the authors), another an interesting discussion of the origins of the “n-word” and how it came to have the power it holds today. I particularly enjoyed a slightly condescending section on a university course which involved detailed study of the lyrics of the rapper Nas.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, for a book that does not paint a hugely positive picture of the south, Deep South has come in for much criticism, accused of merely peddling well-established clichés about the south of America, with a vitriolic piece in the Washington Post commenting that Theroux observations are:
givens, not discoveries. They have been for decades, and it seems unconscionable that anyone, especially America’s premier travel writer, would burn up thousands of words and gallons of gas to experience so many trampled epiphanies.
To which, I suppose, my first response would be that if these things have been true for decades, and if they are still true, then perhaps it is still worth writing about them, to highlight that things haven’t changed? The Washington Post article doesn’t touch on fact as to whether the cliches Theroux mentions are still true so I can only speculate. And other American book reviewers from the south have had different perspectives, even quoting the same passages of the book, but instead of seeing them as lazy, outdated clichés, commenting that “truer words were never spoken”. A reviewer in the Charlotte Observer even said that Deep South offered a “fresh perspective on the region” – very different to the Washington Post’s analysis!
Theroux himself (in the article linked to below), said that he was well aware of all the positive things about the south, it’s rich cultural history, art galleries, sports teams, gardens, historical memorials, and the areas which had great economic prosperity, but he wanted instead to purposefully ignore all of those,with the explicit aim of examining rural poverty in the deep south – he wanted to ignore the tourist routes and instead see the side of the deep south where 20% of its inhabitants lived below the poverty line.
This long article, written by Theroux, will give you a good taste of the book! Or, if course, read it for yourself – I would recommend it, despite the fact that, not being from the U.S. and having very little knowledge of it, I can’t weigh in on the controversy myself!