After five decades spent exploring and writing about the far-flung and exotic places of the world, Paul Theroux has looked to his home country for inspiration. America has always been a place of contrasts and there is none as stark as the differences between the rest of America and the Deep South. Unlike his other journeys, this is one difference; he can climb in his car and drive there. So he does, leaving his home and traveling to the area over the course of four seasons. Each time he catches up with friends made from the previous visit, dodges twisters, sees new places and experiences fresh things.
The American South has a long history, there are deeply ingrained attitudes and prejudices, widespread poverty, high unemployment and collectively some of the worst performing schools in the country. The contradiction is that he has some of the warmest welcomes, listens to some brilliant music and eats probably too much of the fine local cuisine. He will talk to anyone regardless of colour or status, the mayor, the homeless, authors, church leaders, gun traders and those that stood up to segregation. The stories that he draws out from these people in his return trips vary from the fascinating to the sad, there are happy moments and some frankly horrifying stories.
Theroux tells it as it is, not seeking to judge those he meets, but to let them tell their story in their own words. What comes across is a part of a nation that feels unwanted. The fantastic but equally melancholic photos by Steve McCurry show just how abandoned and derelict some of the towns are, haunted only by ghosts and echoes from the past. It is a poignant book, one that shows just how tough life is there. It is my first book by Paul Theroux, even though I have had a number of his books sitting on my shelves for ages, and it definitely won’t be my last.