Reviewed by Mark Walker (Guatemala 1971-73)
I’ve read and reviewed the last eight books by the “Dean of Travel Writing” — Paul Theroux. I wrote my latest book, My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road, in honor and appreciation of Theroux, and another travel writer, “who personally knew and was inspired by Moritz Thomsen and passed their enthusiasm on to me.” Thomsen wrote the Peace Corps experience classic,Living Poor: A Peace Corps Chronicle. Theroux’s book, The Tao of Travel, celebrates 50 years of travel writing and inspired my series, “The Yin & Yang of Travel.”
Theroux is probably the most prolific of the Returned Peace Corps writers, with 33 works in fiction and 53 books overall. He describes his passion for long “road trips” as follows, “My experience of the open road began in Central Africa in the early 1960s, where first as a Peace Corps volunteer and later as a college teacher, I drove Land Rovers and sometimes Willy Jeeps for six years, through foot-deep sand, across trackless plains, and over bone-shaking corrugations….”
He expresses his love of a good road trip: “The long, improvisational trip by car is an American institution–and no other travel experience, especially today, can beat the sense of freedom it brings.”
Theroux reveals the link between what he saw in Africa and what could be found in the southern U.S. in his book, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari,
On the red clay roads of the African bush among poor and overlooked people, I often thought of the poor in America, living in just the same way, precariously, on the red roads of the Deep South, on low farms, poor pelting villages, sheepcotes, and mills—people I knew only from books, as I’d first known Africans—and I felt beckoned home.
In a revealing article on Theroux by Matthew Kronsberg, “20,000 Questions” in the Wall Street Journal, he reveals that the author made several trips driving 25,000 miles over two and a half years, visiting people on “both sides of the rural south’s economic and racial divide. He tells their stories in the often droll, always gimlet-eyed vignettes readers have come to expect of his books.”
As Theroux put it,
“One’s supreme relation,” Henry James once remarked about traveling in America, “was one’s relation to one’s country.” With this in mind, after having seen the rest of the world, I had planned to take one long trip through the South in the autumn, before the presidential election of 2012, and write about it. But when that trip was over, I wanted to go back, and I did so, leisurely in the winter, renewing acquaintances. That was not enough. I returned in the spring, and again in the summer, and by then I knew that the South had me, sometimes in a comforting embrace, occasionally in its frenzied and unrelenting grip.
What I looked forward to the most was how the worldview and sensitivity of local circumstances he’d developed abroad would impact his ability to describe conditions in his own country. He focused on backward comparisons of the third world, which “for me, put things in perspective, although we rarely hear these comparisons contrary to ‘American Exceptionalism.’”
Theroux spent decades traveling the globe and writing about his experiences, but now, for the first time, he turned his attention to a corner of America. He was taking the winding road through Mississippi, and South Carolina, among other places south of the Mason-Dixon line. He learned to appreciate the fantastic music and mouth-watering cuisine contrasted with some of the worst schools, medical care, housing, and unemployment rates in the U.S.
Theroux’s many encounters with the people who make the South what it is—from preachers and mayors to quarry workers and gun show enthusiasts are revealing,
After circulating awhile in the Deep South, I grew fond of the greetings, the hello of the passerby on the sidewalk, and the casual endearments, being called baby, honey, babe, buddy, dear, boss, and often, sir. I liked “What’s going on, bubba?” and “How ya’ll doin’?” The good cheer and greetings in the post office or the store. It was the reflex of some blacks to call me “Mr. Paul” after I introduced myself with my full name (“a habit from slavery” was one explanation). This was utterly unlike the North, or anywhere in the world I’d traveled. “Raging politeness,” this extreme friendliness is sometimes termed, but even if that is true, it is better than the cold stare or the averted eyes or the calculated snub I was used to in New England.
Theroux always looks for local markets and antique shops to appreciate what the local population buys. “On my trip through the South, I could have bought an AK-47, but instead, I bought a beautiful quilt in Eutaw, Alabama and a knife handmade by a man named Jay Dees, in Host Coffee, Mississippi. Like Autolycus in The Winter’s Tale, I’m a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.”
He always avoids chain hotels and restaurants. “If I could have one meal from the road again, it would be the plate of grilled catfish, mac and cheese and a biscuit that I had at Lottie’s Restaurant in Marion, Alabama.”
As a former Peace Corps Volunteer, he was appalled by companies taking jobs abroad and charities helping Africa “when the same conditions exist in the South.”
This trek impacted Theroux, who says, “I began talking to strangers. Now when I go to the post office in Cape Cod, I always say hello to people. Some are pleasantly surprised. Others look at you as if they’re wondering if you’re on drugs. That would never happen in the South.”
Just as I found Theroux’s quote from his Picture Palace, supposedly made by Graham Greene, inspirational, “Travel is the saddest of pleasures. It gave me eyes,” the author leads this book off with an equally insightful quote, “The stranger filleth the eye.” An Arab proverb, quoted by Richard Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa (1856).
“Paul Theroux’s latest travel memoir had me at hello…Theroux pulls no punches in his quest to understand this overlooked margin of American life.” — Boston Globe
“As thoughtful as it is evocative, the book offers insight into a significant region and its people and customs. An epically compelling travel memoir.” Kirkus Reviews
Paul Theroux’s novels include “The Lower River” and “The Mosquito Coast,” and his renowned travel books include “Ghost Train to the Eastern Star,” “Dark Star Safari,” and “Deep South.” Several of his books have been adapted into major films. He lives in Hawaii and on Cape Cod. One of America’s hardest-working writers, Theroux has written over 50 fiction and non-fiction books.
Walker was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala (1971-1973) and spent over forty years helping disadvantaged people in the developing world. His memoir, Different Latitudes: My Life in the Peace Corps and Beyond, his first book, was followed by My Saddest Pleasures: 50 Years on the Road. He founded Million Mile Walker LLC in 2016. His wife and three children were born in Guatemala. He can be found at www.MillionMileWalker.com