Sunday, February 26, 2017

Book Review: Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Theroux, with photos by Steve McCurry (2015)

The cover of Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, by Paul Theroux, 2015. The photo shows an old movie theater in Warren, Arkansas, by Steve McCurry.

Author Paul Theroux, photo by Steve McCurry. Theroux has written about 50 books.

Abandoned gas station on Route 301, Allendale, South Carolina. Photo by Steve McCurry.
Paul Theroux’s 2015 travel book Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, marks the first time that Theroux has written a travel book about the United States. Theroux has some specific criteria for his book: he stays away from the big cities of the South and only examines the tiny towns. He finds poverty that reminds him of Africa, but also friendly people who welcome him in and quickly pour out the stories of their lives to him.

Deep South has an interesting structure, as traveling in his own country and journeying on his own timetable allows Theroux to revisit some of the same people and places in different seasons. While this sometimes leads to a deeper and richer sense of place, it also makes for some inevitable repetition. 

At the start of the book, Theroux writes, “I was to discover that America is accessible, but Americans in general are not; they are harder to know than any people I’ve traveled among.” (p.10) Theroux explains further, writing that in contrast to other cultures, in America “One is more often greeted with suspicion, hostility, or indifference. In this way Americans could be more challenging, more difficult to get acquainted with, more secretive and suspicious and in many respects more foreign, than any people I have ever met.” (p.23) I found this to be an interesting observation from a traveler as seasoned as Theroux. I wonder if American’s attitudes toward a traveler would change if the traveler is from another country? Is Theroux sometimes greeted with suspicion because he is an American asking questions about America? An advantage to being a traveler is that you are an outsider, and therefore get to ask questions that no one else would.

Deep South fascinated me because the South is an area of America that I haven’t explored much. When I was 15, my Dad and I took a road trip from Minneapolis down the Mississippi to Memphis. Just like the Paul Simon song, we went to see Graceland. We drove into Mississippi to see Elvis Presley’s birthplace in Tupelo, but that’s as far south as we went. I still haven’t been to Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, or South Carolina. I’ve been to Florida, but Florida is really in its own special category. 

As someone who has spent most of my life in Minnesota, I haven’t encountered that many Southerners. (Why would anyone move from the South to a place known for cold and snowy winters?) When I spent a semester in Washington, DC during college, I had a friend in my dorm from Tennessee. As smart as he was, I remember him once insisting to me that Abraham Lincoln had owned slaves. (No, he didn’t.) One of my college history classes was “The Civil War,” and we had one guy in the class who was from the South. He ended up dropping the class, shortly after attempting to argue that Robert E. Lee was more liberal on slavery than Abraham Lincoln. I still don’t know many people from the South, but I'm good friends with a co-worker who grew up in Alabama. She’s reading Deep South now as well, and it’s been interesting to compare our notes on it. 

The urban-rural divide in America really fascinates me, so I was eager to learn more about the rural areas of the South that Theroux focused on. Theroux sometimes repeats himself, which is perhaps understandable over the course of a 440 page book. He constantly reminds the reader that various Southern towns remind him of ones he’s seen in Africa. This is perhaps justified as something that all travelers do-we compare things we are seeing for the first time to things we have seen before. Theroux also wonders many times why more isn’t being invested in the South-either by the state and federal governments or by private foundations, like Bill Clinton’s Clinton Foundation.

Throughout the book we see towns like Greensboro, Alabama and Allendale, South Carolina that have been devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs.  An officer in a bank in Greenville says to Theroux, “Things are worse than they look.” (p.118) I couldn’t help but wonder if Theroux had traveled through rural towns in the North, what would he have found? Would he have encountered the same mixture of poverty and decaying small towns where industry has moved on? 

Theroux encounters his share of stereotypical southern tropes, such as when he attends gun shows. Religion also surfaces as a theme, as Theroux attends several different churches where the congregation is largely African American. After quoting a long list of signs that we are in the Last Days from an evangelical radio show, Theroux sums up his feelings towards those prognosticators: “Last Days? Don’t they know? These traits are the traits of all days, every day, everywhere.” (p.305) 

Theroux’s writing is sharp and incisive, and people instinctively trust him, as they open up to him and reveal their thoughts and worries. One of the most interesting people Theroux runs across is Randall Curb, a book lover who has now gone blind, living on his own in Greensboro, Alabama. Randall could surely be a character in a book of Southern fiction, an intelligent man who is very sensitive and also suffers from depression. 

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Theroux said that one of the differences between the North and the South is how friendly people are: “I have a new policy of always saying hello in the post office now, and I get very strange reactions. You say hello to a stranger in the North and they think you're drunk. Or if it's a woman, she might think you're a stalker. They might think you're insane. Why? Because you said hello. But in the South, it's a normal interaction. And for me, it's a very great advantage if people are approachable.” 

Steve McCurry’s photos at the back of the book are all excellent, but they seem almost like something of an afterthought. His photo for the cover, of an old movie theater in Warren, Arkansas, with the evocative name of “Pastime,” is just perfect. Pastime, so close to “past time,” bringing to mind the image of a South in a state of perpetual elegant decay. 

Deep South is a fascinating look at a part of America that doesn’t get much media attention, and although the book has its flaws, it’s well worth your time.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Book Review: Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices, edited by John Charles Chasteen (2011)

Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices, edited by John Charles Chasteen, 2011.

John Charles Chasteen edited Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices, as a companion volume to his history of Latin America, and it’s full of fascinating primary sources. (I reviewed Chasteen’s book Born in Blood and Fire here.) I will quickly admit that I don’t know as much as I should about the history of Latin America, and Born in Blood and Fire: Latin American Voices gave me a taste of the region’s complex history and struggles through colonialism and independence. 

Chasteen has chosen a variety of sources; and along with the non-fiction that you might expect to find in such a book, he also includes a good helping of fiction, which gives the reader a feel for the places the authors are describing. My favorite fiction selection was from The Stock Market, an 1891 novel by Julian Martel. It’s about real estate speculation in Buenos Aires, and Martel’s sharp eye for social status indicators reminded me of Tom Wolfe. 

An anthology like this one inevitably has its limitations, as it isn’t the smoothest reading experience to be constantly switching authors and topics every few pages. However, for those interested in Latin American history, it pairs well with Chasteen’s narrative history.