I’d read a few articles here and there in The New Yorker by Paul Theroux, but Deep South is the first lengthy prose piece I’d encountered. And it’s a doozy. Unlike Travels With Charley and other such meandering journals, Deep South is not satisfied with a single pass at the country and its people. He goes from his Cape Cod home to the south several times over the course of several seasons and returns to some of the same locales and people he has visited before. Theroux’s prose is brisk and clear, his observations trenchant and uncompromising.
He’s traveled the world, but seen many third world countries with more resources than many of the places he visited, especially the Mississippi Delta. Well-publicized charities such as the Gates and Clinton foundations spread money all over Asia and Africa, yet give not a penny to the desperately impoverished people in their own country. The old racial animosities and cultural/institutional separations still exist. Black farmers can’t get loans. White kids go to school at private, segregated venues, black kids get separate and decidedly unequal. And was a wonderful way of life back then and still is.
Yet, there’s still a universal gentility about the whole area that beats the northern mentality all hollow in many ways, though the cost is to remain ignorant of the past and blind to the present. “One of the grand creations of the New South was a mythical concept of the Old South,” he quotes one writer as saying. It’s a strange mix of mentalities. But aren’t we all a strange mix of mentalities. It’s too bad the gap remains, and that there’s no end in sight. And despite all that, when he returns after a year and a half wandering, Theroux can say when he arrives back in Cape Cod, . . .the paradox of it all was that though I had come far. . . I had never left home.