The Deep South Conundrum

Ideas and Issues
Paul Theroux, NPR
Paul Theroux, NPR

Mexico City   Reading Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads is worth the ride, but it comes with some warnings.

Paul Theroux, the travel writer and novelist, is a hard guy to really like, even when you agree with him and are willing to say that his intentions are good. He just kind of goes out of his way to be off putting, embracing a continually condescending view of Southerners and the South, and often knocking at the door of racism. And, I say this as a fan. Theroux didn’t make it to Louisiana, but if he had, and I had run into him there or on the highways in Arkansas or Mississippi where I often travel and where he spent considerable time and gave hard attention, I could have been the third person who had read his work, adding mightily to the two out of one-hundred he encountered who had read any of his fifty works, having devoured the Great Railway Bazaar and Old Patagonia Express many years ago and even made it through Mosquito Coast.

It goes without saying that Theroux has been a world traveler, but the continual comparisons of the South with Africa and Asia, and Southern farmers and workers, black and white, as peasants can take some getting used to and some of his descriptions of people and many, many places are just plain offensive, even when accurate. When he tries to render his versions of local dialect, I found myself cringing and often unable to piece it together intelligibly to the degree that I couldn’t tell if he was trying to communicate or mock in doing so.

His is a work without much self-reflection or irony. If he travels back to a place repeatedly, he comes to like it, and accept the land and its people. If he’s just passing through he’s almost always downright dismissive and usually can’t avoid some stereotype about a Patel-run motel or something or another. He will quote Ovid and claim to relish an author’s anonymity, but can hardly hide how miffed he is to stumble into the Arkansas Literary Festival in Little Rock and be unknown to one and all, to be unable to manage to get a minute with Congressman John Lewis while he is speaking to the black bourgeoisie of Little Rock, or as a longstanding, well-known writer to make an impression on Little Rock-based author, Charles Portis, who he admires. And, don’t mention former President Bill Clinton anywhere within miles of him, because he sees him as a hypocritical sleazebag and a metaphor for Hot Springs and its mixed history. His antipathy buries the troubling observation he makes about Clinton’s role in pushing through NAFTA and the devastation it brought to many areas of the struggling south as hundreds of thousands of jobs fled for lower wages.

But, even saying all of that, Theroux tries hard in many places and asks some important, often unanswerable, questions that make the book worth the climb. He searches out and gives high praise to the hard work of community development organizations in a number of states and black farmers’ self-help efforts and courage in the Delta of Mississippi and Arkansas. He does a good job in writing of the continued, unbridled racism in many of the small towns of the South, and paints an inarguable picture of the retched role of bankers and the impact of their ongoing racial discrimination in lending in rural areas and with farmers.

Over and over again he picks at the Clinton Global Initiatives and its vast fundraising prowess, as he talks to various nonprofits and development groups who are struggling to make ends meet against woeful odds, by asking them if they think they might be as deserving of some support in the dirt poor South, every bit as much as Africa or Asia. All of those he asks, bite their tongues, but politely spit out his bait, and say they haven’t ever been solicited by any of the Clinton philanthropies, but would welcome the support. Finally, talking to a black farmer somewhere around Lee County, Arkansas, and asking the same question about Clinton, the farmer simply replies that “it’s complicated,” and Theroux writes that from that point forward he stopped asking the question.

And, that showed good judgement on his part, but the real question that is overarching in Deep South, which he asks both explicitly and implicitly in all of the wrong ways but enough of the right ways, is, “Why is so little being done about the desperate poverty in the deep South?” That’s a good and fair question, and it’s to Theroux’s credit that he never tires of handling it, even if ham-handed in doing so.

Sadly, the answer in this book and so many others, is that so little is being done, because so few have a clue about what to do, and none are willing to summon the will and wherewithal to really take it on.