Veteran writer Paul Theroux has penned more than a dozen travelogues, most of them set in far-flung locations across vast seas. His most recent book, however, focuses on one of the most exotic and complicated places he’s ever been: the American South. In Deep South ($30, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Theroux, who lives in Massachusetts, drives along southern back roads to visit churches—usually African-American ones—and small towns. He talks to those who’ve lived there for half a century or more—there are very few young people in the book, black or white—and is touched both by the great friendliness he finds in random encounters, and the hostility and mistrust.
As in his other books, Theroux is a stranger here and sometimes does that thing that Northerners do, teasing out racial tensions they suspect lie just below the surface. Those whose experiences or values Theroux finds resonant tend to keep the proper spelling of their gerunds and verbs, whereas those who voice offensive opinions are quoted phonetically—“givin’,” “cain’t,” and so on.
Despite all that, there are several stretches that qualify as tours de force in 'Deep South'. The chapter on gun shows is terrifying for the vendors’ and merchants’ nonchalance about the trafficking in which they engage, and heartbreaking for the rage and loneliness that seem to be shared by everyone in attendance. A visit with a young quarry worker lamenting his broken marriage is as riveting as any encounter by Capote or Mailer, increasing in tension until it’s almost unbearable.
But perhaps no chapter is more gripping than the one on the N-word. Here, Theroux displays his full journalistic talent—the ability to examine both sides of an issue without bias until his opinion emerges, like a dinner party guest who’s had the good manners to let everyone else have their say first. About the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellowship at Harvard, Theroux delicately quotes some of Jones’ lyrics, then concludes: “Whenever an art form—music, book, drama, song—is dragged into the seminar rooms, it is finished as a force. Nothing is more deadly than the anatomizing of scholarship.”
Usually, however, Theroux reserves his judgments and instead listens: to the poor and disenfranchised, many of whom are survivors of the civil-rights era and still barely hanging on. This is 'Deep South'’s greatest strength—capturing voices that will soon be lost to time.
Also on Our Nightstand
Three other books to dive into this month
'The Three-Year Swim Club', by Julie Checkoway ($27, Grand Central Publishing)
A made-for-the-screen story about a schoolteacher in 1940s Maui who teaches underprivileged Japanese-American students to swim and leads them to the Olympics.
'The Invention of Nature', by Andrea Wulf ($16, Knopf)
A ripping biography of Alexander von Humboldt—a 19th-century naturalist who scaled volcanoes, inspired Darwin and Thoreau, and predicted climate change.
'Boundless', by Kathleen Winter ($27, Counterpoint)
A richly detailed account of the author’s voyages across Greenland, examining historic disputes and modern-day conflicts taking place at the top of the world.