Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads

by Paul Theroux

(Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.95, 464 pages)

Who is this author?

Paul Theroux divides his time between homes in Hawaii and Cape Cod, and he has traveled the world for business and pleasure. Now 74, he has published more than 30 works of fiction, including The Mosquito Coast, which was adapted as a major motion picture, but he is best known for his travel writing, which includes such books as The Great Railway Bazaar, about traveling by train from Britain to Japan and back, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea, The Happy Isles Of Oceania, Riding the Iron Rooster, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star and Dark Star Safari. He speaks Italian, French, German, Spanish, Urdu, Chichewa, Swahili, and Mandarin Chinese.  Deep South keeps him closer to home, but in many ways he finds it is just as alien and mysterious as his most exotic destinations.

What is this book about?

After 50 years of world travel, captured in many acclaimed books, Theroux decided that it was time to do some exploring of a place – and a culture – that is uniquely American. His visits covered four seasons and many paradoxes: wonderful music and cuisines and  friendly welcomes that may or may not be sincere, but deplorable schools, housing situations and unemployment, not to mention the lingering impact of slavery and ongoing racial discrimination. He visits the rural South —  Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina – stopping at churches, gun shows and diners, meeting preachers and good ol’ boys and families mired in poverty and finding a kind of Third World embedded in our First World country. It’s an epic journey to a culture quite different from the New England where Theroux grew up, and in this book he captures its language, customs, preferences and prejudices with the skill of a practiced traveler and a gifted writer.

Why you’ll like it:

Theroux writes with verve and irony, and his sharp eye and ear for dialects create vivid portraits of people and places. As America seems to grow more politically and culturally polarized by the day, this book is a valuable guide for readers in the North to a part of the country that seems simultaneously cut off from the rest of the U.S. yet indubitably American.

Here is what Theroux says about a woman who volunteers to guide him to a hard–to-find country church: “As I passed her to enter the parking lot, I thanked her, and she gave me a wonderful smile, and just before she drove on she said, “Be blessed.”

“That seemed to be the theme in the Deep South: kindness, generosity, a welcome. I had found it often in my traveling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going, because the good will was like an embrace. Yes, there is a haunted substratum of darkness in Southern life, and though it pulses through many interactions, it takes a long while to perceive it, and even longer to understand.”

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…Theroux’s eye for landscape remains as sharp as ever…But in the end it’s Theroux’s remarkable gift for getting strangers to reveal themselves that makes going along for this ride worthwhile.

In its starred review, Publishers Weekly says: Travel writer Theroux  finds the traveling easier and his insights more penetrating in this engrossing passage through the South. Celebrating the wonders of American driving—no more rattle-trap trains or jam-packed buses—the New England native recounts several road trips from South Carolina through Arkansas, circling back to revisit places and people in a way he couldn’t on his treks across foreign continents. His relaxed schedule lets him forget the journey and, instead, immerse himself in destinations that seem both familiar and strange (“Jesus is lord—we buy and sell guns,” reads a billboard). Avoiding tourist traps, Theroux seeks out gun shows, church services, seedy motels, and downscale diners such as Doe’s Eat Place, in Greenville, Miss.; he insistently probes the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the appalling poverty of back-road towns abandoned by industry. All this emerges through vivid, novelistic reportage as he gently prods people for their stories, reveling in their musical dialects, mapping the intersections of personal experience and tragic history that give the South “a great overwhelming sadness that couldn’t fathom.” Free of the sense of alienation that marked his recent travelogues, this luminous sojourn is Theroux’s best outing in years.

Says Library Journal: “Theroux’s  title takes us on a trip to a part of the South few seek out. He avoids big cities such as Atlanta and New Orleans and heads to the Deep South: Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina. The author visits, several times in some cases, a number of the poorest cities and communities in the nation. The result is a socially conscious travelog, with a good deal of Southern history thrown in, including literature, race relations, and economics. Theroux writes of the people he meets with sympathy and verve, and though many seem to fit Southern stereotypes, they still come across as genuine on the page. It’s the people of the Deep South—from the frat boys and Southern preachers to African American farmers and local officials—working to save their small towns who bring this book to life. VERDICT: A literary travelog that will interest readers of Southern history and literature and anyone with an interest in American urban history and the plight of the poor.”

Kirkus Reviews gives it a star and says: “An acclaimed travel writer and novelist’s engrossing account of his journey through the Deep South. During his long, fruitful career, Theroux has traveled to many exotic locations all over the world. Yet 50 years after he began as a travel writer, he was suddenly seized with a longing to travel through the hominess of the American South. Driving along rural highways and deliberately bypassing “buoyant cities and obvious pleasures,” he sought out the sights and people that he believed would help him understand a remarkable but profoundly troubled region. The green landscapes of the Deep South still included tobacco and cotton fields, both of which stood as reminders of the “persistence of history.” Even the many gun shows that Theroux visited seemed to recall the Old South’s preoccupation with defending not only its soil, but also its values against incursions from the North. For African-Americans, churches still served as spaces of “focus and respite from a hostile…majority [white] culture.” Memories of slavery and segregation even persisted in the geography, with whites living in the hills and mountains and blacks primarily inhabiting the agricultural flatlands. What stirred Theroux the most, however, was how so many of the places he observed resembled “what [was] often thought of as the Third World.” Despite encounters with lingering racism and deeply entrenched social and economic problems, the author found a warm welcome almost everywhere he went. Everyone—from barbers and welfare families to preachers and politicians—showered him with kindness, generosity, and, more often than not, stories. Broken by history but rich in culture and spirit, the South that Theroux came to know was “a dream, with all a dream’s distortions and satisfactions.” As thoughtful as it is evocative, the book offers insight into a significant region and its people and customs. An epically compelling travel memoir.”

When is it available?

You only need to travel to the Hartford Public Library to borrow this book.

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