James Kelman – ‘Dirt Road’ Paul Theroux – ‘Deep South’
In 1917 HL Mencken, writer, regarded the lands south of the Mason-Dixon Line ‘…as the bunghole(s) of America, a cesspool of Baptists, a miasma of Methodism, snake charmers, real estate operators and syphilitic evangelists. And an artless place to boot.’ He commented that, specifically, ‘Georgia is at once the home of the cotton-mill sweater, of the Methodist pastor turned Savonarola and the lynching bee.’ (Paul Theroux, ‘Deep South’ p222). So I checked in with Mr Theroux and James Kelman to see if much had changed. Theroux’s book and Kelman’s ‘Dirt Road’ are both worthy tomes but, gee, they took some getting through.
I was attracted to Kelman’s novel firstly because he is a Booker Prize winner. Secondly, I purchased as it dealt with, according to a laudatory review I read, the healing force of music for troubled souls. Entering into the book, I was immediately struck by the quality of the author’s prose, as well as his disdain for the apostrophe. But there has to be more to bound printed pages than the excellence of the wordsmithery, even if his casting of conversation in the Scottish lilt and southern drawl was commendable. There needs to be a story – but this one moved along at a more glacial pace than the Mississippi meanders through its delta. Admittedly it was the language that kept me going; that and the desire to find out if the lad finally wins the girl.
‘Dirt Road’ is half a coming-of-age saga, half a tale of the Southern byways – the latter being the case with the great American travel writer’s non-fiction take as well. Interestingly we tend to forget that Paul Theroux once excelled at fiction, being responsible for such product as ‘Saint Jack’, ‘The Mosquito Coast’, ‘Half Moon Street’ and ‘O-Zone’ – but more on him later.
Kelman’s tale centres on a grief stricken teenager, Murdo, who, together with his dad, the silent and traumatised Tom, have lost their mother/wife and sister/daughter in quick succession. Tom decides an American holiday is just the ticket to escape the blues, so they leave their island, off the western coast of Scotland, to escape to the US, planning to stay with rellies in Dixie. Getting there by a circuitous route, young Murdo, an accordion toting folkie-to-be of some local repute, discovers zydeco, as performed by the remarkable Queen Monzee-ay and her washboard playing granddaughter. Murdo is immediately attracted to both, for different reasons. He performs with them on a whim; the black musicians being so mightily impressed they invite him to take the stage with them in a few weeks time when they perform at a festival in a place called Lafayette. Dad and the lad continue on their journey to their welcoming relatives – unfortunately a fair distance from the happening-to-be in a field near Lafayette, Louisiana. Adding to his confusion is a town by the same name much closer to where he is staying. It’s at this stage that the novel becomes more boggy than Culloden. Murdo proceeds to spend an inordinate amount of time camped in his host family’s basement, trying to figure out how to reunite with his newly made musician friends – especially that girl. Towards the end, this offering from Kelman picks up the pace as Murdo does a runner with his father hot on his tail, but by this time I was thankful I’d reached the final pages. I was over it. It was an easy novel, despite its positives, to let go of.
And sadly, I felt the same way about ‘Deep South’. Was that because Theroux went over the same territory, just with seasonal variation, as he made the trip from his New England home towards the Gulf in Autumn (sorry Fall), Winter Spring and Summer? Was it because he self-drove those byways instead of using the conveyance we most associate with him – the railroad? With ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, ‘Riding the Iron Rooster’, ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ and other such titles he made his name as a travel writer par excellence. As an aside, whilst I was reading this, I encountered a well-journeyed shop keeper in Richmond village who was inspired to go places she would never have countenanced before she came across this author’s writings, even taking the same trains. And perhaps there is one final question – is age catching up with the famed describer of exotic locales?
But the book did thoroughly explain to me, in no uncertain terms, as to why the Trumpster was able to capture the disaffection of the American heartland thus taking him to the Presidency. Over and over again Theroux railed about the destruction of American industry due to globalisation. It’s pulverised the economy of much of the South and ergo the lives of huge swathes of its populace; what with the transition of their jobs to south of the border down Mexico way, as well as to China and India. Most of the towns he visited were just shells of their former glory, their inhabitants existing well below the poverty line – black and white. There are still immense racial divisions and antagonisms, as well as a fissure between urban and rural of both races. He also points to the deep distrust held by many to anything associated with the Clinton family.
Theroux meets many of the poor and down-trodden. The stories they told were uniformly heart-breaking, but by the end there were just so many of them it seemed to defeat the purpose. He also heard the tales of those doing their best to assist these defeated souls – including some from outside the region who were often viewed with suspicion as do-gooding interlopers. In his travels he bumps into the former wife of the great BB King – and does she have an interesting word or two to say about her ex. He encounters numerous men by the name of Patel, all from the state of Gujarat in India. A Patel ran every single motel he stayed in – could these be the same industrious people who seem to be behind the counter of seemingly all United servos here?
But, overall, the wordsmith’s impression of the people of the South, with some notable exceptions, was that they abounded in ‘…kindness, generosity; a welcome I had found often in my travelling life in the wider world, but I found so much more of it here that I kept going…’ The fact that he did so, on and on and on, is perhaps not such a plus for the reader.
‘Deep South’ is illuminated by the images of the great Steve McCurry, but more illumination would have been gained by an inclusion of a map of his travels for those of us not so familiar with the geography of these former Confederate states. As Theroux points out, with the US pumping so much foreign aid into the third world, some would find it at odds with such poverty on the home front down south. Maybe Trump will pay more attention to those who, through no fault of their own, are doing it tough from the Georgia shore to the Ozarks.
Not since Kennedy has there been a President as charismatic as Obama, but the hope that came with him had well and truly dissipated in the south by the time these two books were written. Middle America has now gifted the planet the ultimate wild-card. Can he conjure much needed change for those who demonstrated how weary of the political elite the voters in these regions were? Time will tell.
Paul Theroux Website = https://www.paultheroux.com/