Thursday, November 05, 2015

Book Notes: Deep South by Paul Theroux

"Reading made me a traveller; travel sent me back to books", writes Paul Theroux, reflecting on his physical and literary pilgrimage through the Deep South of the United States. 

Despite all I have read, I have never been to the Southern States of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee; although books like this one create the longing to do so. I hope that one day I will see, smell and feel this iconic land myself, but unless some unheard of relative dies and leaves me untold riches - I will have to go there vicariously through travel writers like Paul Theroux. Thankfully, Theroux makes a very amiable companion on such a paper-bound excursion.

Deep South is not an 'adventure story', in which the travel-writer embarks on an epic journey. Indeed he is anxious to distance himself from the 'writer-hero, overcoming great odds in search of some noble aim' type genre. Neither is Deep South a travel guide, and basis for an itinerary of notable sights and hotel reviews. Rather, this is the story of four meandering trips Theroux made from his Northern home, through the Southern States during the course of a year. His focus is on people, culture, lives, history and literature - not on tourist attractions, and he re-visits several people and places on his tours. He writes:
I had read Southern fiction all my adult life - not just Faulkner and the gothics but the lesser lights and the poets, the playwrights, the explainers, the apologists, the memoirists - yet for all the reading I had done, few of the books I'd read, prepared me for what I found in the South: the uncomplaining underclass that amounted to a peasantry; the opportunistic newcomers, Northerners and foreigners taking advantage of the South's accommodating culture; the powerful few, black and white, animated by their pretensions; the poverty, not the colorful kind.... but the grim and seemingly ineradicable hardship of... the back lanes of the Delta. It was a region in which books - apart from the Bible - hardly mattered to most people, and why should they, when people spent their days struggling to get by? Freaks and goofballs were well documented in Southern fiction, the working poor less so. (p282-3)
Theroux's travels, on backroads, and places seldom remarked upon, paint a vivid portrait of a land unlike anywhere I have ever been. Curiously, Theroux repeatedly remarks that although  he is American - and a very widely travelled one at that, The Deep South is unlike anywhere he has been. One of his favourite analogies is that many of the people he meets have lives akin to Russian peasants, worked out in an almost African climate.

The struggling economy of many of the rural towns and villages, is a key theme in the book. Some of the towns (with their tawdry, and decrepit motels) have slumped after being by-passed by new Interstate Highways. Others have never recovered from the decline in the cotton trade, but the worst and most hopeless places which Theroux finds himself in are those where manufacturing industry (fabrics, car-parts, tyres, food processing) has been moved to Mexico or further afield. Several places he visited were victims of the Clinton's NAFTA agreement, which invited capitalists to move their enterprises to subsistence-wage Mexico - without compromising their access to lucrative US markets. Yet the heart of Theroux's book is not a economics treatise, but the stories of those whose lives are worked out in these contexts. He visits projects such as "HERO" in Greensboro - and observes projects aiming to rejuvenate housing and create employment.

Theroux's reponses to the culture of the South are intriguing. Sometimes, he seems ill-at-ease in the contexts in which he finds himself, yet his writing is clearly a sympathetic attempt to understand, not an outsiders attempt to judge. The all-white gun-shows Theroux visits, which are the outlet for all manner of weaponry, artillery, Nazi memorabilia, exquisite manners, and paranoid conspiracy theories, are a perfect example of this. Theroux makes it clear that he can handle a firearm, and that he likes many of the people he meets there; but yet he is suspicious of the defensive, inward-looking nature of the culture which seems to endorse violence, and the unspoken but consistent racial segregation practised beneath Confederate flags and Swastikas.

The South's deep religiosity intrigues Theroux too. On one hand, everywhere that he travels he finds Christian believers seemingly obsessed with future-prophetic readings of the book of Revelation, and of portents of judgement in every political event, and natural disaster. "The Bible is the happy hunting ground of disturbed minds" he remarks on a couple of occasions - and while he writes empathetically of some subsistence farmers he meets in Mississippi who are end-times obsessives, he finds their faith disturbing. Having said that, he writes amazingly positively about other aspects of the faith he finds in ordinary people and their churches - such as the Rev Virgin Johnson in South Carolina.

The Cornerstone Full Gospel Baptist Church was larger than it seemed when I approached. It lay in the hollow of a low, poorish neighbourhood of small houses near a narrow creek, Cribbs Mill Creek. "Black Southerners find in their churches a unifying focus and respite from  a hostile (or strange) majority culture", John Shelton Reed writes in "The Enduring South", adding, "as immigrant ethnic groups do."  Bishop Palmer's congregation resembled just such an ethnic group, like-minded - looking for solace. The warm-up prayers were impassioned and delivered by a deep-voiced woman greeting the faithful, who were filing in, formally dressed, women in hats and gloves, men in suits.....  (p74-5)
"The Church has always been the centrepiece of the rural South", Bishop Palmer said. (p73)
Theroux seemed comfortable here, with people finding solace in their community and their God - as they had done since the days of slavery; as he did with The Rev Eugene Lyles, Black pastor, community leader, and local barber in Greensboro, Alabama; and writes charmingly of his times with them. This is yet more of the kind of reading that makes me want to travel..

Race. It seems it is impossible to disentangle race from any aspect of Southern life. As Theroux travelled he found that Black farmers felt they were given little chance to compete with whites, while whites at gun-shows armed themselves against the loss of their culture and way of life. The shadow of Klan lurked menacingly in the background of many of the discussions he had with folks both Black and White across Alabama, yet everyone seemed to want to assure him that things aren't as bad as they once were. In between his travel diaries, Theroux engages in some stimulating essay writing which punctuate each season of his Southward excursions. While some of these are literary, (focusing on William Faulkner), at least two drill down into the subject of race. One is a fascinating and insightful essay about use of the "N-word", by racists and rappers; while the other tells the macabre story of Money Mississippi, made forever infamous as the setting for the lynching of young Emmett Till in 1955. Theroux pokes around the ghostly weed-entombed remains of Bryants Grocery Store, where the naive Northern teenager whistled at a white Southern Woman, violating the key psycho-sexual underpinning of Jim Crow; a mistake for which he would pay with his life.

Theroux's meanderings and reflections, take him through villages, towns, farms, welfare projects, along levees, into churches, and all the way down the mighty Mississippi River. In fact, he likens himself to that same 'old man river', sliding through the landscape, while not being part of it. Does Theroux do justice to the Deep South? Would inhabitants there accept his version of their places, their lives? Or would a reader from Alabama feel misrepresented by this outsider? I honestly don't know - as I have never been. But this rich and rewarding reading gives enough of a flavour of the people and their lives in the land, to make me determined to visit one day.

Theroux concludes:
It goes without saying that the vitality of the South lies in the self-awareness of its deeply rooted people. What made the South an enlightenment for a traveller like me, more interested in conversation than sightseeing, was the heart and soul of its family narratives -its human wealth.(p434)

And in page after page this wealth is wonderfully portrayed.

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