Saturday, March 3, 2018

Deep South, by Paul Theroux

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux departed from his usual methods in his Deep South treks: instead of starting in airports and taking single-loop tours via public transportation, he aimed his car south from his Massachusetts home not once but four times, one per season, over the course of a couple of years. He met people who introduced him to others, and many he visited more than once. Instead of a traveler's singular impression, he dug in - the resulting chronicle offers us a granular view of the South.

Without judging the beliefs or inclinations of those he encountered, he immersed himself in what they think, what they want, meanwhile offering an outsider's perspective on grinding poverty, racism, and limits on opportunities that keep Southern society locked into a centuries-old dynamic enforced through banking, property ownership, and the shrunken coffers of governments and NGOs that could change residents' outlook.

Despite Theroux's renown, he was unknown in the South to all but a few - he found one avid reader and the man's writer friend delighted to make his acquaintance (and vice versa), but at the Arkansas Festival of Books, where you might think they'd have heard of him, he was greeted as "Mr. Thorax," his writing unfamiliar. He was simply a Yankee - an outsider - an object initially of suspicion, but when he pressed, a sounding-board for stories.

"I was the bystander or the eavesdropper, recording other people's pain or pleasure... No ordeals, few dramas...I breezed along, and this progress was a way of understanding how lucky I was, because the confinement that Southerners feel, their keen awareness of themselves as stereotypes - provincials and yokels, in literature, in life - is something palpable... No wonder the grotesque preponderance of the gothic and the freaks - the reality was too brutal to state baldly, unbearably so.  Critics and academics extol the South for the abundant wealth of its literature, the region encouraging a storytelling tradition. This praise seemed to me a crock and self-serving [emphasis mine]. The opposite was the case: there was not enough writing, and what existed, with a few exceptions, was insufficient. Missing was a coherent introduction for the outsider to the South that exists, the South that I saw... I say ignore the books and go there. The Deep South today is not in its books, it's in its people."

He found the two biggest drivers of poverty and resistance to change to be region-wide loss of jobs, and pervasive racism. Those he met, black and white, spoke of the furniture and carpet plants that had closed, their industries relocated to Mexico, the catfish farming now outsourced to Vietnam, and how those losses had hollowed out rural communities. The construction of the interstate had stranded towns off the chosen route, condemning them to decay. Theroux reflected on aid the US provides to countries like Zimbabwe, whose rural areas were no worse off than those he visited in South Carolina, Georgia, and the Delta, and wondered why churches dispatched missionaries to promote development in Africa, turning a blind eye to comparable conditions just down the road.

He observed the self-enforced segregation of society - black churches and white ones, black diners and white, black-majority towns and white ones, then met with a group of black farmers in an uphill struggle - despite crop sales, none could obtain a loan (essential for financing the tractors, combines, and other machinery necessary for farming more than a few acres) - no banker or loan officer - all of them white - were willing to believe that a black man could prosper at farming. Crop sales on thousands of acres meant nothing - the bankers had never heard of a successful black farmer, so they wouldn't make a loan to one.

This book was written before the 2016 election cycle, yet it seems attitudes in the South have not changed so much as hardened, as the ugly campaign gave rural whites permission to express their racist views openly. Theroux visited gun shows just after the Sandy Hook shootings, and noted the uptick in sales - fear of possible limitations on gun ownership prompted people to stock up.