Jack Hitt grew up in Charleston, S.C., and is the author of “Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character.”
In Paul Theroux’s new book, “Deep South,” the superficial stereotypes pile up at once. In the first scene, it’s a “hot Sunday morning” in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and there’s mention of snake-handling and talking in tongues, poverty, holy-roller churches, a black barbershop, gun shows, college football, the requisite Faulkner quote (“The past is not dead . . . ”) and even a sassy black lady (“You lost, baby?”). So far, I haven’t left the first page.
In pursuit of these and many of the South’s other moldering cliches, the author makes observations worthy of a freshman sociology major: “A church in the South is the beating heart of the community, the social center, the anchor of faith, the beacon of light, the arena of music, the gathering place, offering hope, counsel, welfare, warmth, fellowship, melody, harmony, and snacks.”
Look. The South is a complicated place because of slavery and race, and riveting because the reality of our past was built on epic brutality and the history of that past is built on epic myth. The cause of the Civil War was slavery, and many blacks and whites in the South are still struggling with a barbarous poverty that has plagued the region since the plantation economy was rightfully smashed by force of arms. Racial fury, in one form or another, has postponed any decent economic recovery for a century and a half.
Anyone with a passing acquaintance with the Deep South knows these are givens, not discoveries. They have been for decades, and it seems unconscionable that anyone, especially America’s premier travel writer, would burn up thousands of words and gallons of gas to experience so many trampled epiphanies.
It’s as if Theroux consulted the classics of the South — the works that established many of the cliches: James Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” the stories of William Faulkner, the photographs of Margaret Bourke-White and the novels of Erskine Caldwell — and then went to find exactly what he expected to see. He regularly asks old black folks about discrimination in the 1960s, school segregation or Klan violence several generations ago. With whites, he seeks out those locales where one would most likely find someone resembling a supernumerary from “Deliverance.” When he visits Charleston, S.C., he tells us that old pretty architecture bores him, while Mayor Joe Riley’s 40-year reign of brilliant urban planning holds no interest, nor does a culinary renaissance driven by massive shifts in demographics and cross-racial relations. Instead, he goes to a gun show and, not so surprisingly, finds himself chatting up anti-government paranoiacs, conspiracy theorists and Nazi-memorabilia collectors.
Early on, the author gives us a clue as to why he donned such a tight-fitting set of cultural blinkers. “Yes, I had been to Patagonia and the Congo and Sikkim,” but “I had not traveled in the Deep South.” Theroux expends a lot of verbiage to tell us how well read he is about the South (and everywhere else), particularly the works of Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Portis, Thomas Wolfe, William Styron, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker and Derek Walcott (the high-lit name droppings, by my count, add up to nearly 35 canonical authors). And these names get dropped for any old reason. When he encounters lots of people living in the same house, it seems like “the sort of story people call Chekhovian.”
He’s read the great classics as well — Chaucer, for example — and is amused that people living in rural outbacks didn’t spend their college years in Middle English seminars. At one point he is talking to a black clergyman who introduces himself as Bishop Palmer. Theroux says: “I think of a palmer as a pilgrim, bringing a palm from the Holy Land. Like the line in Chaucer.” Bishop Palmer seems confused, so Theroux says: “Canterbury Tales. ‘Palmers for to seken straunge strondes.’ ” Theroux whispers to the reader, “He smiled as people sometimes do when hearing an unintelligible language brazenly spoken, or a dog with an odd bark.” After attending Palmer’s church — which was a big afternoon of singing and preaching, followed by a luncheon spread — our traveling Yankee notes, “It was touching to see how some serious tinkering with Scripture could lift people’s spirits.”
Theroux sustains this posture of exalted condescension for all of his many, many pages. After making an appointment in Eutaw, S.C., to talk to a very busy black woman (whose identity or purpose he confusingly never explains), he swans in late and gets chewed out by this “older woman scowling under a mass of wild corkscrew curls,” and a few poorly edited lines later, he repetitively notes that her “wild corkscrew curls gave her a gorgon-like aspect.” When she explains that he was in a position to call but didn’t bother, she adds, “I call that ‘white privilege.’ ” Theroux practically threatens her with his Bic Excalibur: “I took out my small notebook from my shirt pocket and clicked my pen. ‘White privilege,’ I said, writing slowly. ‘Hmmm.’ ”
When she says she’s “black,” Theroux confides to the reader: “She was not black at all. She could have been biracial, she could have been Sicilian, she could have been — and probably was — Cherokee or Choctaw.”
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, the National Emergency Council’s 1938 “Report on Economic Conditions in the South” and even Harriet Beecher Stowe’s memoir “Palmetto-Leaves” brought attention, in their own ways, to the arduous lives of Dixie rustics. To that end, Theroux joins the parade of visitors who look in horror, but mostly pity, at this fierce struggle.
In any of these books, there is some metaphor for the degradation of illiteracy and dipping wells and ignorance and dirt floors. For Theroux, it is Africa. A conversation about housing development for the very poor uses “bureaucratic jargon” that “I had heard in Africa.” Allendale, S.C., is “like a town in Zimbabwe,” although a few pages later it is “reminiscent of an upcountry farming town in Kenya that had gone to the dogs.” But 200 pages later, when he returns, the metaphor has settled down and Allendale “could have been in Zimbabwe.”
In Tuscaloosa again, Theroux encounters Crimson Tide football mania and, pith helmet down below his eyes, discovers the “enlarged italic of the Alabama A on cars and clothes and often showing as a bold red tattoo.” The football celebration is a “riotous hooting tribal rite” in which “some men have the A tattooed on their neck, and some women on their shoulder.” You know what Tuscaloosa reminds him of? So many things, but among them “jungle-dwelling warriors fitted out with pig tusks and nose bones” and “the facial scarring of a Sudanese Dinka.”
When a woman in Greensboro, Ala., says her son had left for Zambia to volunteer for community development, Theroux struggles with “suppressing a mocking laugh” because “so much here bore a distinct resemblance to places in Zambia I had seen.” And, hilariously, when someone else is late for a meeting with Theroux, he mutters to the reader, “If this had been Zimbabwe, which it much resembled, I might have said: This is urgent. I don’t know when I can come back.”
There is a quixotic quality to Theroux’s reading of literature about the South. He has filled his head with the sweepings of others’ observations and energetically blinded himself to anything that might confound his preconceptions. The book is a chronicle of endless tilts at James Agee’s windmills. In the last paragraph on the last page, Theroux writes his last sentence: “Because the paradox of it all was that though I had come so far — miles more than I ever had in Africa or China — I had never left home.” Hmmm. Paul Theroux should get out more.
By Paul Theroux
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 441 pp. $29.95