Skip to main content

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads


Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads

Inspired by his trek through western South Africa, which became the subject of his ninth travel book, THE LAST TRAIN TO ZONA VERDE, Paul Theroux was struck by the similarities of that country to parts of America’s own poverty-stricken Deep South.

And so it was that Theroux set off in his own car in 2012 to spend a year and a half in four separate trips to drive the back roads of the Carolinas, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and parts of Florida. He took the advice of a helpful preacher to seek out the places where regular people gather, both black and white. He visits gun shows, restaurants, bars, community centers and especially churches. It is rumored that in the South there is a church on every corner --- an exaggeration, but not by much. He applies his amicable magic to draw out their stories, historical memories and life experiences. Many people are natural-born storytellers, and Theroux hones in on them like a mind-seeking missile. We are the fortunate recipients of this journey to the heart and soul of the South.

"Many people are natural-born storytellers, and Theroux hones in on them like a mind-seeking missile. We are the fortunate recipients of this journey to the heart and soul of the South."

One of the more unforgettable characters is Randall Curb, a historian recommended by the B&B owner where Theroux stays in Greensboro, Alabama. Randall, who is blind, welcomes Theroux to his small, modest home in the center of town. Rooms are filled with books, all of which he had read before he began losing his sight, but he can’t part with any of them. Theroux observes that finding books in a house is unusual; many of the homes he has been welcomed into might have bookshelves but are filled with mementos and souvenirs. Randall was also the only person he met in his year and a half of travel who knew his name, which he found to be an advantage, believing that “anonymity is freedom.” He revisits Randall, who continues to introduce him to richly valuable resources.

“In my traveling life, it had never been a hardship for me as a writer to live among illiterates. For most of the years I spent in Africa, I lived contentedly with people for whom books were little more than unfathomable but potent fetishes. The unlettered person has other refined skills and is often more watchful, shrewd, and freer in discussion than the literate person with a limited experience of literature, who believes that all the answers to life’s questions can be found in the pages of the Bible, say, or the Koran.” He describes the laziest and most presumptuous of people as “those who can read but don’t bother, who live in the smuggest ignorance and seem to me dangerous.”

Theroux comments that many famous Southern writers we read in school --- such as William Faulkner, Truman Capote, Harper Lee, Carson McCullers, Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Mitchell --- portrayed the dark, violent, “phantasmagoric” (some categorized as gothic) side of the South or the overly romantic. He excoriates Erskine Caldwell, who “created a popular image of the South as a landscape peopled by grotesques.”  

He also has harsh words for the non-profit benefactors, such as the Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative, and our government, which pours billions of dollars into foreign aid when one quarter of America’s land mass is crumbling and ignored and where the poverty level is 20% or higher. But the vast numbers of the Southern poor are a proud people. They resent not only the government but also “outside” do-gooders poking their noses in their business. And therein lies the paradox. 

To label Paul Theroux as a travel writer falls short of describing his brilliant portrayals of the human condition in places many of us may want to visit if we had the passports, wanderlust and wherewithal to get there. He has devoted 50 years and nine books to traveling the world, and then sharing his observations through his unique genius of approachability with ordinary people. Now, in DEEP SOUTH, we visit our own country unadorned, demystified and warmed by its generous people while being saddened by its neglect.

Reviewed by Roz Shea on October 9, 2015

Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads
by Paul Theroux

  • Publication Date: October 18, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction, Travel
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Eamon Dolan/Mariner Books
  • ISBN-10: 0544705173
  • ISBN-13: 9780544705173