The magic of Paul Theroux’s writing lies in his ability to bring out the character of a place through anecdotes and observations. He picks up bits and pieces
along the road–often the very bits and pieces that others overlook–and in weaving them together, he creates a story. The main character of his story is a place, and in this case, that place is the Deep South. Over a period of a few years, he traverses the back roads and rural highways of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina, talking to mayors, social workers, preachers, hotel and gas station owners, gun sellers, and a host of other locals to portray the very best and very worst qualities of this area of our country, both past and present. We learn about Virgin Johnson who was 12 when he became the first black student in an all white school after “voluntary integration” in 1966. His only guardians were the black janitors. At 13, while working for a survey company, a property owner shot at him and told him to get off his property. Virgin recalled finding his fighting spirit at an early age and harnessing it throughout his life.
Over and over, we meet people who have lost their jobs in manufacturing with no retraining programs available to help them find new work or no new work to be found and no way to support themselves. Some have lost hope; others find hope and beauty in the smallest things: an uplifting sermon, a flowering shrub, a patched ceiling, a food pantry. Theroux often makes comparisons between the lack of aid and resources offered to these tiny communities in the Deep South and the billions of dollars and resources our government and NGOs provide to African villages. Why do we do so little to care for our own people, he asks.
Many of the stories are heartbreaking, some of them are uplifting, and some of them are shocking. Toward the end of the book, he arrives on the campus at University of Alabama where he discovers that the Greek system remains segregated. Though a number of sororities wanted to offer membership to black women, and the University’s president marched across campus in support of sorority integration, the sorority alumni forbid the acceptance of black students. This is current day. Good Lord, I nearly dropped the book from my hands when I read that. And people in this country think we don’t have a race problem?
This book is a bit longer than it needs to be, but Theroux is never less than thorough, and when I read the last story, my heart ached for the people and places in our country that are so off the map, it’s as though they cease to exist.