Like Paul Theroux, travellers often go in search of adventure in other countries before exploring their own. Having travelled to remote corners throughout the world, he sets out to discover a part of his own country—the United States—that he knows mostly through its fiction.
The Deep South of the US is a cultural subregion and comprises the southeast corner of the country, the states that were dependent on plantations and slavery during the pre–Civil War period. History is alive and well there. As someone points out, the past “isn’t even past”. Some of the African-Americans Theroux meets remember their grandparents talking about slavery. So it’s not far away, after all. And although things have changed, racism does rear its ugly head.
Theroux decides to avoid the cities and stick to the rural areas to get a better sense of the real Deep South. He goes to small towns and settlements so tiny that they do not exist on the map (“you gotta be going there to get there”). Because the South is a three-day drive from his home in Connecticut, he is able to return time and again. The trip keeps looping in on itself, which means that he has more time to understand the area and see how it has changed.
The shocking fact that comes through is the level of poverty, and this in a so-called rich country. He drives through areas of stunning natural beauty dotted with towns abandoned or barely getting by. He finds “bank deserts”—areas where there were no banks, so people could not get loans or open bank accounts, something Theroux had not seen, not even in the remotest parts of Asia. And when there was a bank, the poor felt too intimated to go in. A lot of the destitution has to do with manufacturing moving out of the US, putting people out of jobs. There does not seem to have been much effort put into creating alternative jobs for them, so they end up sinking below the poverty line.
Theroux meets a wide variety of people, the desperately poor, intellectuals and farmers, who tell him about how difficult it is for black farmers to get loans. But there is incredible resilience, and those who can try to help their fellow citizens—buying bankrupt banks and restoring them for the poor; and helping with housing and food. And all this without much help from the state. And through the portraits of these people, you get a real sense of the place. Theroux has obviously fallen in love with the warmth, hospitality and strength of its people, so it’s no surprise that he chooses to go back.