Paul Theroux has had an immense influence on my life. When I first read The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas in 1981, I knew that I wanted to travel as he did. But I couldn’t: I was stuck in a demanding job, and many of the places I wanted to visit, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Argentina, were undergoing hard times; and travel there was not recommended by our State Department.
But the years have passed, and travel to Latin America is not so problematic any more. (Though, now, parts of Mexico are dangerous—including many cities, such as Veracruz, which I have visited.)
After writing books about traveling by rail through Asia and China, about traveling around the coasts of Britain and the Mediterranean, and about island-hopping in the South Pacific, Theroux spent four winters traveling through the Deep South, concentrating on poor small towns in Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, opened my eyes to why Trump won in 2016. Theroux’s South was a place where people were more civil to strangers than in other parts of the country. Yet there is a great deal of poverty, and many of its people feel they have been shunted aside by history, large corporations, and general neglect.
Theroux, the world traveler, spent those four winters dealing with people who, for the most part, never traveled abroad. He spent more time with Black Americans than with Whites. Both racists are as far apart as ever, yet there are glimmers of hope. And the hope is not from Washington and New York, where all the money is concentrated, but from local people who bring about incremental improvements rather than global change.
He is older and wiser after his forty-odd years of travel. “The greatest advantage to being an older traveler is being invisible, unregarded, ignored. This allows one to eavesdrop and to see much more of a place or a people. There is a detachment, too, in being older: You’re not looking for a new life, not easily tempted. So you see a place clearly. Perfect for writing.”
The travels that went into the making of this book took place before the electoral debacle of 2016, but one could see the widespread willingness to try something new, to talk to somehow who promised to “Make America Great Again.” Not that this administration will anything to help them. A trade war with China would hurt voters in Trump country far more than voters in the Northeast and West.