Noted travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux’s new book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, brings very mixed reactions.
On more than one occasion, I wondered, “Where does this guy get off saying that?” And I grab the book and want to hurl it through the window. These fits particularly came after one of Theroux’s elitist, degrading attempts at phonetically capturing the Southern accent.
But the book also shows he’s a great storyteller who occasionally makes an interesting observation. “Well, that’s a good point,” I would think. “Don’t get rid of it yet.” And I kept reading.
For 50 years, Theroux, who is obviously not from the South, has traveled the corners of the earth — India, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Patagonia and China. But he realized he knew little about a lot of his own country, particularly the American South.
“I made it my habit to drive past the buoyant cities and obvious pleasures in favor of smaller places and huddled towns, to meet the submerged twenty percent,” he wrote, explaining why he bypassed the prosperous South of Charleston and Hilton Head Island.
In doing so, he got an incomplete picture of today’s South. He found cliché and decay. He found desolation, poverty, hopelessness and hunger in rural South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere.
Yes, those areas exist and are much too prevalent. But he missed urban booms, promises and other problems that make today’s South so much more of a complicated region, as witnessed by the outstanding quality of life for rich folks in gated communities who are often served by the poor who ride buses for hours to get to the only jobs they can find. It’s almost as if he found the South to be a highly-functioning alcoholic, but he only focused on the disease, not any of the good.
South Carolina native Jack Hitt, whose brother happens to run the state Department of Commerce, slammed Theroux’s book as filled with “superficial stereotypes” with “observations worthy of a freshman sociology major.”
Writes Hitt in The Washington Post, “His big discovery is that the poor areas of the Deep South are heartbreakingly poor — which is true, and was true when Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Appalachian tour, Walker Evans’s photographs, …”
When Theroux started quoting Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, whose Turn in the South was a similar misinformed discovery of the obvious about the South, I knew the book was in trouble. He also waxed on about writers like William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, obvious sources of Theroux’s gothic, gritty preconceptions. He was looking for that South and, predictably, found it in places like Allendale, South Carolina’s poorest town.
About a third of Deep South is about South Carolina and includes stories about the Orangeburg Massacre, Strom Thurmond, drunks at the Aiken Steeplechase and attending black church services. But Theroux’s focus in the Palmetto State is on the desolation and desperation of Allendale. He fixates on how Indians run convenience stores and a motel: “There was something weirdly colonial about the presence of Indians in the rural South, which reminded me of Africa: the Indian shop in the dusty upcountry town, the overpriced and grubby merchandise, the locals squatting under the trees [drinking alcohol], giving parts of the South an even more dramatic, sleepier, unfixable Third World appearance.”
While Theroux told stories of how the nonprofit Allendale County Alive is trying to help people in the area get better housing, he missed how USC-Salkehatchie’s new dormitory is energizing the community or how the new Promise Zone is bringing people together to make positive changes. Focusing on the negative and problems just must have been easier.
Despite the book’s narrowness, Theroux got a couple of things right. He found Southerners — from gun nuts to the poor — to be hospitable and kind. And he understood many poor areas are having a tough time economically because of how mechanization hurt family farms and how big American businesses shifted the only jobs left in rural areas to other counties.
If you must, read Deep South. But the 441-page book can be summarized simply: People in the rural South are good folks, but a lot of them are poor. (Thanks. We know that.)