Deep South – Four Seasons on Back Roads

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Books by Paul Theroux are always more readable when Mr Theroux is unhappy – grumpy even – and in Deep South he finds plenty to be annoyed about. It’s unusual for a Theroux book – a fact that he points out more than once – that it isn’t a linear (or circular) journey, he doesn’t start at A and eventually end up at Z. So it’s not a book where you can think ‘OK, I’ll make the same trip.’ Bill Bryson’s travels through Middle America, chronicled in The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, inspired lots of people to follow in his footsteps. Relishing every boring middle-of-the-road motel he came across.

Theroux’s Deep South meanderings are exactly that, four separate trips from New England, heading down to the south and wandering around to see what he can see and bump into as many people as possible.

If you did want to follow his tracks, however, Phil Ebersole maps out his four trips at the start of his blog Paul Theroux in the Deep South. You’re probably not going to want to try out all his accommodation choices. Early on he notes how the non-chain motel business in the USA – or particularly in the deep south – has been taken over by Indians (sub-continent Indians that is, not native-American Indians) most of them from the Indian state of Gujarat and many of them with the surname Patel. That becomes such a running joke that the word ‘Patel’ pops up 46 times in the book. Unfortunately quite a few of his Patels are not doing a really good job of running their motels and Theroux has some uncomfortable nights in motels where cleanliness and maintenance have not been top class. Still, Patel-Motels are not the only places to suffer the edge of the author’s tongue, poor Mrs Janet May’s charming Blue Shadows Bed & Breakfast is not just ‘sensationally cluttered’ it also features ‘the mingled aromas of mildewed carpets and air freshener.’

There’s a diversion into why Theroux is not enthusiastic about southern writing – William Faulkner does not emerge well – and another about the ‘N-word’ and its multiple issues. But mainly he’s complaining about southern poverty and blaming it on American enthusiasm for looking after Africa – the word ‘Africa’ appears, 106 times although of those 19 are mentions of African-Americans. The Clintons’ 46 appearances, tying with the Patels, also get blamed for that, putting Bill and Hilary exactly level with the Patels in number of appearances. In fact he begins to get embarrassed about all his Clinton rants and announces that they are going to be ‘never mentioned’ again. And they aren’t.

Catfish certainly pop up regularly as well, 42 times in all, often to be eaten (a ‘mess of catfish’) but also to regret that the catfish business is heading downhill. A problem also suffered by shoes, clothes, carpets, cars, televisions and lots of other products which are no longer made in the south because production has migrated to China (31 mentions), India (101) or Mexico (less frequently). He subsequently wrote a New York Times op ed – The Hypocrisy of ‘Helping the Poor’ – which prompted a surprisingly energetic backlash – ‘That’s what this article is about: failure to understand economics’ was the final summation of one lengthy comment.

◄  Negro Motorist Green Book, 1940 edition

My interest in Deep South was also prompted by two other factors. One is the Best Picture Oscar winner Green Book – yeah I know it was saccharine and featured, according to Spike Lee, the archetypal ‘Magical Negro,’ but the movie title comes from the Negro Motorist Green Book, later retitled the Negro Travelers’ Green Book. Published between 1936 and 1966 this was a travel guide for African-Americans, trying to make their way around the USA when many doors were slammed shut to them. It’s available today, in a reprinted facsimile edition.


◄ Negro Travelers’ Green Book1959 edition

My other Deep South interest is, of course, a travel one. Over the years I’ve managed to travel through 42 American states. Sometimes only briefly, although I have spent well over a year each in California, Maryland and Michigan. Four of my remaining eight states are in the Deep South – Alabama, Mississippi, Missouri and South Carolina – sometime I’ll have to go back and put a few more ticks on my American states travel bucket list.