cover image Deep South

Deep South

Paul Theroux, photos by Steve McCurry. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.95 (464p) ISBN 978-0-544-32352-0

Travel writer Theroux (Ghost Train to the Eastern Star) finds the traveling easier and his insights more penetrating in this engrossing passage through the South. Celebrating the wonders of American driving%E2%80%94no more rattle-trap trains or jam-packed buses%E2%80%94the New England native recounts several road trips from South Carolina through Arkansas, circling back to revisit places and people in a way he couldn't on his treks across foreign continents. His relaxed schedule lets him forget the journey and, instead, immerse himself in destinations that seem both familiar and strange ("Jesus is lord%E2%80%94we buy and sell guns," reads a billboard). Avoiding tourist traps, Theroux seeks out gun shows, church services, seedy motels, and downscale diners such as Doe's Eat Place, in Greenville, Miss.; he insistently probes the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the appalling poverty of back-road towns abandoned by industry. All this emerges through vivid, novelistic reportage as he gently prods people for their stories, reveling in their musical dialects, mapping the intersections of personal experience and tragic history that give the South "a great overwhelming sadness that [he] couldn't fathom." Free of the sense of alienation that marked his recent travelogues, this luminous sojourn is Theroux's best outing in years. Color photos. Agent: Andrew Wylie, Wylie Agency. (Sept.)