Book review: Deep South, Paul Theroux

By Alexander Bisley

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Writer Paul Theroux.
Writer Paul Theroux.

Paul Theroux is one of the great travel writers because he makes you eager to visit where he writes about, even when he sharply gets what's wrong with it.

For Deep South, Theroux spent four seasons driving around America's South and focused on the poorest parts. The learned 74-year-old, well-travelled in Asia and Africa, found shocking relative poverty, even hopelessness, but also charm, kindness, generosity and warmth.

Unsurprisingly given the strength of the Southern black church community, Theroux elicits insights from charismatic black preachers. One of his many strengths is the ability to find what's interesting and sympathetic about most people he meets randomly: obscure politicians, elderly bed and breakfast hosts, even gun repair men.

Reminiscent of his classic works like The Happy Isles of Oceania - who could forget Theroux's description of the Routeburn's track lonesome majesty? - and Fresh Air Fiend, he also captures some southern landscapes' natural beauty.

Theroux's account of the cuisine is tantalising but, a bit light on blues music; he does pen an interesting interlude on the N-word and hip-hop. "The past wasn't dead, nor past," Theroux writes, and he is wise about the persistent effects of slavery and racism.

He quotes incisive passages by William Faulkner on the 1955 Mississippi murder of African-American 14-year-old Emmett Till, lynched for allegedly flirting with a white woman, and its enduring effects: "This whole land, the whole South, is cursed." He visits Glendora, where Till was beaten and his unpunished murderer, J.W. Milam, lived until 1980. "It was shocking, a hideous street of shacks and hovels ..."

Theroux's style is slashingly vivid and elegant and brings to mind two atmospheric favourites, Carson McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter and George Orwell's Down And Out In Paris And London.

Deep South
By Paul Theroux (Penguin $40)

- Canvas

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