This is Paul Theroux’s only travel book wherein the act of traveling is intentionally easy. Unlike his other books – taking the railroad across Siberia, traveling from Cairo to Cape Town by public transport – in this one, he heads from his home in New England to the Black Belt of the southern U.S. in his personal car. He returns several times, responding to the siren, “Y’all come back, now.”
The driving is easy but the landscape is just as poor, but less tended to by national and international aid organizations, as anyplace he has seen in Africa, and Theroux has spent years in rural Africa. What emerges from a book written in the early 2000-teens is that Black people in the southern United States continue to face economic segregation that is so severe as to leave families living in tar paper shacks, on degraded farmland, facing an inability to get loans or federal assistance more than a century after Reconstruction.
Making the book even more unique is Theroux’s discourse on other travel writers and especially to famous southern writers, most notably William Faulkner. It’s like taking a roadtrip with a particularly informative English professor, albeit a driver who keeps asking how it is possible that former President Clinton’s multi-billion dollar foundation (and others like it) can provide aid to villages in Africa, but won’t pay attention to desperate hollers in his Arkansas backyard or impoverished cotton farmers with leaking roofs in Mississippi.