“Only in America can you travel in confidence without a destination,” writes Paul Theroux, one of America's most notable travel writers, as he begins Deep South, his first project on his own country. By auto, Theroux takes a trip in each season to the states of the Deep South, preferring rural areas to large metropolises and striking up innumerable conversations with Southern folks: reformers, shop owners, small town mayors, gospel-preaching motorcyclists, veterans, even (by accident) the widow of BB King. What emerges is not just a vivid portrait of the South today, but a reminder of its dark history. “As was so often the case," writes Theroux, "driving up a country road in the South was driving into the shadowy past.”
Like many travelers, Theroux finds the South a hard nut to crack. In static, desolated communities he senses such despair that Theroux often draws comparisons to African countries he's visited. Although congenial, many of his acquaintances find him a suspicious outsider. At gun shows, for instance, Theroux meets “happiness amounting to rapture” and plenty of men who are pleasant and chatty, yet are animated by deep grievances (about the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the end of plantation farming and gun laws, to name a few), men who "still felt persecuted, conspired against by hostile outside forces, making a symbolic last stand.”
In an attempt to break through such barriers, Theroux does what many travel writers don't -- he comes back. His narrative is filled with chance encounters that develop into fruitful and illuminating friendships, as well as well-wrought investigations into Southern culture. He muses on the significance of Strom Thurmond fathering a black daughter, football in Alabama, Walmart, the murder of Emmett Till, the N-word, the contradictions in Faulkner, why he thinks To Kill A Mockingbird is overrated (and the work of black Southern writers is often better) and much more.
As an added bonus, the book includes a few pages of color photographs by "Afghan Girl" photographer Steve McCurry that depict Theroux and some of his characters and settings. "Travel in these parts was such a melancholy pleasure," writes Theroux. “The mood of the South is powerful and the weight of its history is palpable." As his four journeys lead him down the faraway country roads of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina, then back again, Theroux lives up to his sterling reputation. He pushes past intransigence and contradiction towards a sense of understanding as deep as the South itself.