9 June 2017

Theroux

Here's Paul Theroux writing about the Mississippi River near the end of "Deep South":-

Some days in the Delta the river was the only vivid feature in a landscape that seemed otherwise lifeless - no leaves stirring, no people in motion, cattle like paper cutouts, hawks as black as marks of punctuation in the sky; the monumental stillness of the rural South in a hot noontime, all of it like a foxed and sun-faded masterpiece of flat paint, an old picture of itself. (page 434)

The book is a travelogue but it does not involve a faraway journey to a an exotic land. Instead, Paul Theroux rides about in his car, exploring a part of his own country with which he is unfamiliar -  the so-called "Deep South" including the states of South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia. Mississippi and Arkansas. There he finds poverty the likes of which he had only previously seen in Africa.
Lester Carter in Cotton Plant, Arkansas
Though this is still The United States of America, it is a very different country from the world he has known up in the Yankee north east. Old industries have died and once proud towns are in decline. Black and white exist in different circles  There's a stillness and a certain melancholy in the landscape as if everyone is waiting for something to happen, something that will change things for better or worse.

On his travels, Paul Theroux meets civic leaders and farmers, bosses of well-meaning social enterprises and people who seem to have simply been left behind by the tide of modern times - like rotting rivercraft on the shores of the mighty Mississippi itself. He comes to appreciate the humility and friendliness of The South even though he is pained by the disturbingly obvious deprivation.

Over the years I have read several books by Paul Theroux, including "The Old Patagonian Express", "The Great Railway Bazaar", "The Happy Isles of Oceania", "The Kingdom by the Sea", "The Mosquito Coast" and "Hotel Honolulu". For years he has been a great observer of human activity and is perhaps best known for his travel books rather than his fiction.

Down in America's southern states, during months of travel, only two people he met had heard of him or had read any of his work. He found this immensely humbling and appreciated the freedom to look and learn that his anonymity allowed him. In "Deep South" he had a way of looking at things that might not have been my way if  I had zigzagged through that same countryside but I found the book informative and insightful, taking me to places I will probably never visit, meeting people I will never know.
Paul Theroux

25 comments:

  1. Good write-up, YP. I always appreciate informative assessments of books, as I'm always looking for things I might find interesting to read. I hadn't heard of this author before.

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    1. Well I am glad that I alerted you to his existence Jenny.

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  2. Paul theroux is an author I've never read. I have him on my book list.

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    1. I hope you try out a couple of his books Red.

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  3. It sounds like a good read. A visit to my local library might be in order.

    Coincidentally, I've been play Delta blues all morning!

    When my ex lived in New York he took a break from work one time to do a trip through different US states. He bought a Kombi van and headed off with a tour of The South as part of his itinerary.

    He was advised and followed said advice to get himself a separate set of license plates other than his NY plates. This was back in the late 60s-early 70s.

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    1. He would also have been well advised to add a few bumper sticjkers too - "I'm a Redneck", "National Rifle Association" and "I Love the KKK".

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  4. I read that book, and liked it a lot. I remember thinking he really captured something of the spirit of this region.

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    1. Shame he didn't drop into the mall where you work to investigate white slavery.

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    2. That is s shame!

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    3. That is s shame!

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  5. It is unlikely I will ever set foot in that region myself, so a good book would have to substitute for a real trip.
    I must admit that a few bits I seem to remember having read elsewhere about the Deep South scare me a little, such as the racism, religious fundamentalism and the widespread love of guns. I wonder how Paul Theroux' book would have turned out if he were an African American, travelling the same region.

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    1. That's a good last point Meike. I am sure that he would agree he would have been thwarted in many locations, meeting stony silences... or something worse.

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    2. Meike, a big percentage of the people in this area ARE African Americans. In fact, in my high school class, white kids were the minority. In some ways race relations are better here than in other parts of the country--we've had to learn to live together. I promise you wouldn't be as afraid if you visited here. It's not as bad as you seem to think!

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  6. Many years ago I read the Old Patagonian Express and marvelled at the fact he could walk from his home to take the train on the first part of a journey, which apart from one flight, would finish at the railway station in Esquel in Patagonia. A few years later I was in that very town but not at the railway station.

    I've read some his of his other books and always enjoyed them, his style of writing and the people he meets along the way. I think the two books I liked best of all were The Great Railway Bazaar (1973) and the book retracing that journey in 2006, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star.
    He has a wonderful way of conveying the feeling of train travel; this makes you feel you are with him and sharing the journey.

    Alphie

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    1. No doubt he is a great observer and a great communicator too. How amazing that you were in Esquel, Patagonia. I wonder what you were doing there?

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    2. Since you asked, I was with a small group of people and we were eating breakfast, listening to Vangelis and being watched with great suspicion by the locals. We were a bunch of gringos after all and what were we doing in this small town?

      Alphie

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  7. My favourite travel writer YP - I have read (and own) all of his books (they are all going with me on my move).

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    1. Do you plan to read them again or is it that now they will simply colour your bookshelves?

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  8. Sounds intriguing and great review too. Many thanks for sharing.

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    1. I don't know that it would be your cup of team Blogoratti.

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  9. I like travelogues but I don't think I've ever read any Theroux. I shall put him on my list of authors to read.

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    1. I hope you won't be disappointed Sue.

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  10. Sometimes I think that the Deep South must feel a little like Scotland (in some respects only of course).

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    1. A large percentage of white people here are of Scottish descent. My hometown phone book was only about 10 pages long and probably 5 of them were names beginning with "Mc"

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    2. How many Ronald McDonalds are there in Florence SC?

      It seems to me that Scotland is far less neglected economically than large swathes of northern England that don't have their own devolved budgets or multi-million parliament buildings etc..

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