Paul Theroux has spent decades traveling the globe, working hard to dig deeply into cultures and people, writing about it all in wonderful books and essays. When he writes about his life, so far mostly abroad, it’s with sensitivity and a clear vision. I have never felt he considered himself “a travel writer.” Rather, my impression of Theroux as a top-tier writer is of a thoughtful observer with a marvelous ability to bring his experiences alive with the written word.
Deep South finds Theroux spending four seasons roaming the true southern world of the United States. Yes, “world” is the proper term. The people and towns and crossroads he brings to life inhabit areas far from the major highways, left behind by tech revolutions and social media and, unfortunately, our government and most social services and outreach.
Theroux digs into people’s stories; he asks questions and listens. People open up and relate their lives and experiences and histories in a way that doesn’t surprise me, having read enough of Theroux to expect this quick relationship. Across the pages, I could hear in my head the voices Theroux was hearing. He so effectively paints word pictures that speech patterns and voices and language came alive.
Poverty and despair cut deeply through the American South. When I lived in Georgia in the middle 1970s some areas were simply used up. People were tired and without hope or jobs and reeling from the years of the Vietnam War and the draft and how many people they’d lost. Theroux digs deeply into how people feel today in the tiny towns crowded with empty storefronts, left with a church and a bar and perhaps a grocery store (or a crappy motel operated by Mr. Patel).
Generational poverty, living in a manner nobody would expect is happening in the United States, or should experience, is the norm for a shocking number people in the American South. Yet in the midst of these dark times many people shone brightly. At every turn people were friendly and upbeat with Theroux, working hard to help each other and provide whatever assistance they could.
There’s no getting around the fascination with the American South Theroux has and many of us share. But read Deep South to savor the ease with which Theroux puts us in his shoes, how he enables the reader to see what’s in front of him and how it processes inside him. There’s so much more to this acclaimed writer’s work than superior writing. Paul Theroux has an uncanny ability to write like a novelist. He captured me on the first page of Deep South, creating an adventure story jammed with memorable characters, disguised as a travel book. Amazing work.
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