In which Mr Theroux (or Mr Thorax, as he memorably becomes as he tours areas where no one has heard of him) re-establishes himself in my pantheon of esteemed travel writers. In fact, this might turn out to be a favourite. After I really didn’t like his last set of essays, I was worried I’d gone off him, so this was a relief, and I will be picking up “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star”, his re-tracing of “Riding the Iron Rooster” at some point.

Paul Theroux – “Deep South”

(10 June 2017, The Works (blogged about here; still haven’t done the jigsaw))

An unusual journey for Theroux, who usually travels by public transport, in a line, dropping in on people and communities and getting one impression. Here, he makes four trips South, one in each season, and takes people at their word when they encourage him to come back again to find out more. This gives a real depth and more humanity to his book and, I think, shows him at his best. He says himself that he gets more depth and nuance this way, and also sees the small but important adjustments in communities and people. he also travels easily on good roads, so the usual travel writer’s content of moaning about terrible trains and delays at airports is just not there and he can concentrate on other things.

His humanity really comes across; he takes time to get to know people and find out their stories, and stops where he likes, as he has no plan or rail timetable. He’s genuinely angry, for example that the Clinton Foundation and other US charities give so much to other countries but seem to ignore and do nothing to help the horribly poor communities living below the poverty line in their own country (obviously, this attitude can lead to that awful thing where people complain about foreign aid budgets: he stops well short of that and it’s about helping these people as well as, not instead of, the similar communities Theroux has encountered on other continents). He gets behind the “raging politeness” of the South to find a polite and welcoming but wary and multi-levelled community and reception.

Theroux has his usual railings about people like Thoreau and at Faulkner and others for making the South look so gothic but ignoring the racism and racial inequality in their line of sight. This is part of an erudite and wide-ranging discussion of travel writers and fiction authors who have taken the South as their subject, though, good and bad. He even meets a few writers, though one hero is very slippery. He’s deeply respectful towards most of the people – definitely the genuinely struggling ones – who he meets, and highly attuned to nuance and awkwardness, even though he can be his usual grumpy and scathing self, for example at a literature festival he attends. He also has the respect to write in detail – but not gratuitously – about racially motivated crimes, and lays out their details and who has written about them as well as tracing the places they occurred. He has an interesting interlude on the “n” word, and, while he is respectful and understanding of the folk at gun shows, he certainly doesn’t support a lot of their claims, and makes that clear. To summarise: he’s human and humane and lives up to what you’d expect of him.

The sociology of the book is fascinating, especially his many encounters with small-motel-owning people with the surname Patel. As he memorably says, it’s like a load of Southern Baptists called Smith suddenly run half the paan-selling shacks in India. This is part of “non-linear ethnic niches” where there’s no underlying ethnic reason for a group of people running a lot of similar businesses, for example, it’s not like people from Beijing opening Chinese restaurants in the UK, but is like the proliferation of Greek-owned fish and chip shops. I loved all these investigations and details.

A lovely, depressing journey highlighting wonderful small self-help initiatives and interesting characters, as well as grinding, inescapable poverty and institutionalised racism that is shocking but sadly not surprising (but it should be!). He doesn’t give any real answers but then he’s not there to provide them, but to observe. And in his crumpled, older man way, often now mistaken for someone of no real importance, that’s what he does.

PS: he expresses a love for the “other” Elizabeth Taylor amidst a list of authors – hooray – although he does describer her as a short story writer.

I’m currently reading William Sitwell’s “Eggs or Anarchy”, bought on the same buying trip and number 1 in my 20BooksOfSummer. I was a long way through this one by the start of this month, so it had to take priority. What are you reading? Have you fallen out of love and back in with any authors?