Fifty years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux drove through the American South and cast an outsider’s clear and critical eye on a region that has certainly changed in the interim, but not always for the better. The acclaimed author of The Mosquito Coast here draws on the literature of the land, explores the language of its people and gets to know the locals as he journeys through South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and more.
You might expect a series of charming vignettes as Theroux stops at country stores and diners, knocks on the doors of rundown homes, and consults with preachers and politicians. True to form, though, Theroux never stoops to cliché. It’s not that he doesn’t run into engaging, intelligent and creative people along the way, but rather that he never lets the sad truth of the Deep South—poverty, poverty and more poverty—slip from the picture he paints. Stunning photographs of an old grocery store almost entirely consumed by greenery and portraits of hopeful Arkansan farmers like Dolores Walker Robinson, who poses proudly with one of her goats, add yet another dimension to Theroux’s well-chosen words.
Words themselves feature prominently in Theroux’s account, as he delves into previous writers’ attempts to capture a sense of the South; he seems particularly fond of and well versed in Faulkner, for instance. He also devotes a substantial section to the politics of language, focusing on the infamous “N-word” and its uses, abuses and taboos, from slave days to the modern popular music of African-American artists like Jay-Z.
Theroux reproduces dialect throughout the book, and while he sometimes veers ever so close to stereotype, he also captures the cadence of casual conversation among neighbors, which can often reveal more about a region than any amount of formal research.