Charles Halton on Paul Theroux’s Deep South
After a lifetime exploring foreign lands, travel writer Paul Theroux took a trip to his backyard — the American South. Theroux is perhaps the greatest living member of a class of writers who subject themselves to an ordeal while moving about an unfamiliar place. Peter Matthiessen schlepping over Nepal, Ian Frazier traversing Siberia, John McPhee whacking his way through the Alaskan wilderness, Paul Theroux ambling through the world’s most depressing landscapes. Make no mistake: the ordeal is purposeful. In many ways it’s not really travel writing unless getting from A to B is a giant pain in the ass. Like the time Theroux almost died when bandits shot up the truck he was riding in. Or all the punishing, eternally long train rides through semi-functioning states he endured. He never, and I mean never, skips across a continent from one Waldorf-Astoria to the next where the most traumatic thing to happen to a guest is forgetting their custom made toenail clipper and having to make due with one provided by the concierge. This does not make for engaging writing.
Travel writers of the Therouxian sort arrive in an exotic locale and set out in a direction with a wad of cash and the barest outline of a plan. They design their trip to be a long series of digressions. They place themselves into a structure that embraces spontaneity. For example, Paul Theroux almost never reserves accommodation in advance. This allows him to go anywhere at a moment’s notice — to cut a stop short or dawdle around if things look interesting, if they might be worth writing about. If a Bedouin comes along and says he’s off to smoke and reacquaint with his dead ancestors and asks, would you like to come along, it’s imperative for a travel writer to be able to say, yes, lead the way. If a minister of the government finally agrees to an interview, you grab your pen and make haste to his office. If a member of ISIS offers to demonstrate the proper way to interrogate captives, you’ll probably decline; but at least if you’re prepared for digression, you’ll have the option of a choice.
In Theroux’s previous books he favors milk run trains and busses with iffy brakes as his preferred means of transportation. The only planes he took were at the beginning and end of the journey, never in the middle. He wants to move low to the ground, be one with the common folk instead of soaring over their heads to the next destination. Plus, traveling by bus is a bitch of an ordeal. It makes for engaging writing. Theroux stays in flea-bitten hellholes redounding with squalor —rooms the US military wouldn’t dare inflict upon their involuntary guests at Guantanamo. He doesn’t go out much at night. Instead, he cozies up with the cockroaches nesting in his mattress and writes up his notes. Besides, in his view the only things to do at night in hard up places are drinking booze and calling on the working girls. These are two things that Theroux tends to avoid while out on the road. But has he considered that these things might make for engaging writing …?
Anyhow. What makes Deep South different from the rest of Theroux’s travel books (he is also a prolific writer of fiction) is there is far less ordeal. He pulls his car from his garage in Cape Cod and aims it south. No grubby busses with chickens in the aisle and no lurching trains. Nor does he have to walk through dusty streets and subject himself to the humiliations of border crossings. He travels in his own car, not even a stripped-down underpowered rental. The main question I had throughout the entire book — a question Theroux never gets around to answering — was what kind of car does he own? The leaf opposite the title page is a double columned list in impressively small type of all the books in Theroux’s arsenal. He’s written more books than I’ve read. Maybe this says something profound about me but all I can wonder is how much loot he took home from all those contracts. Even if he were paid a few dimes for each project he’d have enough to fill a kiddie pool to the brim. He also splits his time between Hawaii and Cape Cod. I read that in his bio on the cover. Anyone who can afford two homes and the airfare between them has to have enough coin to acquire a nice ride. So what does he drive? A Merc or a Bimmer? Or is he an Alpha guy? Why is he so shy about telling us this? In his previous books he describes his means of transportation in loving detail: the stifling heat of un-air-conditioned busses, swirling dust clouds that gum up one’s lungs when riding in the open beds of pickup trucks, the discomfort of trains so ill-maintained they are rotting on the tracks. Maybe climate-controlled Lincolns don’t make for engaging writing?
What Theroux did is drive his anonymous, presumably semi-luxury car, in a southernly direction over four successive seasons. Naturally, he breaks up the resultant book into four parts named Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer. He also throws in some interludes for, well, I don’t know, spice? Anyway, he does his usual thing. Talks to the locals, gives us the feel of the place, and settles us, his readers, into a vague sense of depression. You see, Theroux doesn’t go to Atlanta or even some of its desireable daughter cities like Macon or Athens. He doesn’t go to Muscle Shoals, the place now white-hot and trending since Billy Reid established his fashion house there. He doesn’t visit Beaufort, South Carolina, the town designated by Southern Living as a “Small Town We Love” and described as a place where “the river’s pristine waters surrender such high-quality seafood that it seems folks are always gathering for a shrimp or crab boil or an oyster roast.” He eschews places that work. They make for bland writing. He doesn’t even go to Memphis, a place that profoundly doesn’t work but at least has good ribs. He makes a beeline for the South’s open wounds, festering and gangrenous — the rural sinkholes of poverty and the small towns decimated by unemployment. The Mississippi Delta, pockets of Alabama far from the Interstate, the entire state of Arkansas.
Theroux circles despair like a vulture waiting to swoop in on a carcass lying in the road once the traffic dies down. In Deep South he visits families that lack the funds to fix the holes in their roof and a young enterprising couple that apparently support themselves by picking up trash. He meets really nice ministers and social workers who are resigned to the impossibility of creating real, significant change that would actually help. They exhibit a surface optimism but beneath it is a hardened understanding that politicians and the general public that elects them doesn’t give a flip about poor people. It’s hard to read Theroux and not sharpen all the pencils in my house and walk out into the world shanking people left and right. In his previous book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, he got so depressed at the filth and inhumanity of Africa that he didn’t even finish the trip. Once he got back he vowed he’d never go back. Talk about a downer. Interesting thing about that book: the American edition included the Disneyfied® subtitle My Ultimate African Safari while his UK publishers went with the more descriptive Overland from Cape Town to Angola. Apparently the British are primed for melancholy.
There is a silver lining here. Theroux experiences a revelation, has a bat qol, receives Enlightenment, or whatever else you want to call it. For all his travels through the Sunbelt Theroux discovers that the key to understanding the South is attending its churches, visiting some gun shows and watching a football game, preferably all on the same Sunday. He also realizes that southern people are really friendly and can cook up a mean plate of vittles. All of this is profoundly true. It’s also stereotypical to the extreme. There’s a lot to respond to here so for the sake of your time we’ll need to triage this train wreck.
For one thing Theroux’s working definition of religion is one-dimensional enough to make a professional religious studies scholar go all apoplectic and recite a horrendously long bibliography of obscure essays and monographs each of which would single handedly pull the rug out from under Theroux’s sophomoric understanding. I won’t bore you with the full list of citations that our apoplectic scholar would cite but I will quote at length from Theroux’s book and then highlight a couple soft spots in his rhetoric:
“Football’s a religion here,” some Tuscaloosans also say, and smile in apology, but they are closer to a complete definition in that cliche than they perhaps realize. Even the most basic of psychological analysis can explain why the neat formula is so fitting. Not any old religion, certainly not the mild, private, prayer-muttering, God-is-love creed that informs decisions and gives us peace. The Crimson Tide football religion is one that is awash in fury, something like Crusader Christianity reared on bloodthirstiness, with its saber charges and its conquests, or like Islam in its most jihadi form, the blazing, red-eyed, uncompromising, and martyring faith; as an in-group cohering around to demonize and vanquish an out-group. In Tuscaloosa it is a public passion, a ritualized belief system, a complete persona. It is why in Alabama some men have the A tattooed on their neck, and some women on their shoulder: a public statement, a commitment for life, body modification as proof of loyalty and cultural differentiation, like a Hindu’s caste mark or a Maori’s tattoo or the facial scarring of a Sudanese Dinka.
Okay, let’s be generous and give Theroux some writerly wiggle room and assume he is taking a Division I sized portion of poetic license here. Even still, the soft spots: A) So, serious religion (as opposed to unserious religion?) involves getting mightily pissed off and becoming — in the name of God or Allah or Buddha (but is one still a buddhist when angry?) — an enraged, ISIS-style murderous jerk-wad. In football-religion I guess this would mean slashing the tires of rival fans or tipping over their tailgate spread. It seems to me that Theroux has conflated dickishness with the metaphysical impulse. B) The real reason the fine men and women of Alabama carve A’s into their skin is not because they got mind-bendingly drunk that one time in their early twenties and decided to show off in front of their chapter house pseudo-friends they rented for the semester but rather it is because our fine Alabamians have enough sociological awareness to jump strata through a display of in-group markings. Theroux gives the citizens of Alabama a tad too much credit.
But even more to the point, who among the American reading public isn’t aware of the intimate (we could even say erotic) relationship many southerners have with their guns? Who among this elite population has not heard of the term The Bible Belt or is unaware of what it means? Is there anybody — literate or not — that is ignorant of the role of football in the South? It doesn’t take a travel writer who has the good fortune of living in Hawaii and Cape Cod to figure this out. Maybe this is new to Theroux. Maybe all the years of picking lice from his hair in Timbuktu has encapsulated him in a bubble, insulating him from the factoids all other Americans imbibe from tap water. Let me put it like this: It’s like I went up to New England and wrote a book about how its inhabitants subsist on lobster and clam chowder and display assholeish behavior when they enter Boston traffic.
Deep South stirred up other stuff in me too. I was born and raised in Austin, Texas, which is to say: I am not from the South. I am walking into controversial waters here, but no matter what historians argue and regardless of Texas’s role in the horrors of slavery and the Civil War, no Texan alive in this moment considers their state a part of the South. (Theroux must agree with us since he does not include Texas in his travels.) Texas was and still is its own country, not some outer appendage of a bedwetting pseudo-state that started a war it lost to a bunch of effete pen-striped Yankees. There is a myth — I haven’t bothered to check to see if it is fact because it feels so completely true — that every Texan child learns: the Texas flag is the only state flag that is legally permitted to fly at the same level as the US flag since Texas was a country before it became a state. Even though most Texans know this they also don’t care much for authority. It is not uncommon to see the Lone Star flapping proud and happy above the Stars and Stripes. This mentality is not restricted to Texas’s mere citizenry. A few months back Governor Greg Abbot ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor a joint Navy SEAL/Special Forces training maneuver taking place just east of Austin. The president of Texas wasn’t about to let foreign forces move about unchecked on Texan soil.
I say all this to underscore the fact that I am not and will never be a southerner. And yet, Louisiana is only two hundred seventy-five miles from where I was born. A Dutchman might hear that distance and think I’m talking of hitching a ride to Mars but for a Texan that’s a short horse-gallop away. Or in Yankee-speak it’s like walking to the corner store to buy a pack of smokes. I’ve read stacks of travel books but this was the first time I encountered someone describing my neighbor. It gave me the impression that Theroux was sticking pushpins through the arms of folks a lot like me and displaying them under glass. I felt, in short, like an aborigine splayed before a blonde-haired cultural anthropologist.
Reading Theroux interpret the South was equivalent to a guy from another town strolling down my street to write a book about the family that lives next to me, but in doing so he only cared about accompanying them to Mass and sitting in on their marital disputes. I know the people next door. I watch the husband as he mows his yard with his shirt off, stomach flopping down covering the top third of his shorts. We talk barbecue and how the wine distribution business is booming. They’re originally from New Jersey but like it here a lot more. I saw how they lovingly welcomed home their adult daughter after her marriage fell apart. My daughter and their granddaughter play Star Wars together and squabble over who gets to wield the best light saber. What’s a part-time interloper going to teach me about my neighbor that I don’t already know? And what’s this guy even going to get right beyond external stereotypes? Deep South soured me toward travel writing in general. If Theroux — the living grand master of the trade — made me feel this way, how do Alaskans react when they read John McPhee?
Maybe there is something flawed about the genre itself. Maybe the whole setup of ordeal and digression and encountering the new is really just a faux conceit. I know one thing: I didn’t learn anything about the Deep South from reading Deep South.
Perhaps that’s not the point. I did learn a lot about Paul Theroux. His deep concern for those who struggle, his visceral hatred for politicians (the Clintons in particular) who line their pockets while neglecting the citizens they are charged with caring for, his fountainhead of love for literature he reserves for people who truly appreciate good writing. I saw Theroux’s antipathy toward religionists (but not religion itself) mellow as he came into contact with so many religious folks of the South who were, in his experience, some of the kindest, most caring, and fun people he had ever met. And that was enough. I find Paul Theroux to be a deeply fascinating person and he revealed more of himself to me in this book than he has in his previous works. It was, for me, an engaging read.
This makes me wonder: If I read travel writing to better understand the author and not the places he or she visits, what then is the point of the travel? Memoir is a far more efficient way to accomplish this. In The Odd Woman and the City, Vivian Gornick opens herself to her readers and explores the nature of friendship more deeply than did Theroux all while never leaving New York. Tim Parks discovered meditation from the comfort of his office while conducting research on the Internet. He describes how it qualitatively changed his life and brought an end to excruciating pain in Teach Us to Sit Still. Neither of these authors endured malarial sweats and bed bugs.
Why can some people make profound discoveries sprawled out on the sofa while it took risking hypothermia and frostbite for Peter Matthiessen to joyfully embrace the circumstances of his life? I don’t know why this is the case but I do know one thing: Paul Theroux has for me ruined the genre of travel writing. Never again will I pick up a book and expect to learn something real about another people or place. I will, however, continue to read them as revelations of the author.
I don’t know whether to be grateful to Theroux for stripping away my naïveté or whether I should hold a grudge against him for imploding a perfectly good type of literature. However this shakes out for me in the coming years, I will keep reading everything he writes. He’s just too compelling a figure for me to turn aside. Unless, of course, his next book is about Texas. I just couldn’t stomach what he’d make of the country of my birth.