Kritik US-Reisebuch: Deep South, von Paul Theroux (2015) – 7 Sterne – mit Pressestimmen


Paul Theroux reist 2012 und 2013 mehrfach länger durch die US-Südstaaten, so dass er in Deep South auf 440 Seiten über alle vier Jahreszeiten berichten kann. Theroux schreibt äußerst flüssig und lesbar (ich hatte die englische Ausgabe). Er besucht fast nur Kleinstädte und fast ausschließlich kleine Leute und Mittelschichtangehörige – häufig Pastoren und Mitarbeiter von Hilfsorganisationen, die ihn gelegentlich an echte Hartzer vermitteln, mehr Weiße als Schwarze. Dabei reist Theroux in einer Hinsicht wie ich, „more interested in conversation than sightseeing“ (S. 434). Er schreibt nicht über Sehenswürdigkeiten, liefert keine Touristentipps.

Einige Plätze besucht Paul Theroux wiederholt, auf unterschiedlichen Reisen, und keiner ist so richtig markant. Dazwischen beschreibt Theroux gelegentlich lange Autofahrten, eine Landkarte zeigt er aber nicht. So entsteht der Eindruck, dass Theroux nur an einigen wenigen Stationen länger blieb, und die Unterschiede zwischen den Regionen verschwimmen; Arkansas allerdings hat „deep-fried pie“ und eine Barfußkultur. Theroux rollt gelegentlich auch Historisches oder Politisches auf – nicht den Bürgerkrieg oder das Ende der Rassentrennung, aber einzelne spektakuläre Massenmorde oder rassistische Auswüchse, die in der Zeitung standen.

Resteverwertung?

Wiederholt denkt man aber auch, dass Theroux die 435 Seiten mit Dingen füllt, die er eigentlich an anderer Stelle veröffentlichen wollte. So gibt es lange Abschnitte über US-Reisebücher (Therouxs  „Tao des Reisens“ war gerade erschienen), über die Freuden des Autofahrens auf guten Straßen (Theroux hatte gerade die katastrophale Afrika-Reise zum Buch Zona Verde abgebrochen) und Demütigungen an Flughäfen – all das lehrt nichts über die Südstaaten. Theroux produziert auch gelehrte Abhandlungen über Faulkner, über Südstaaten-Literatur allgemein, über Bill Clintons Jugend,  und er trifft die Autoren Mary Ward Brown sowie kürzer John Lewis und Charles Portis.

Er bringt eine lange Geschichte des Wortes „nigger“, doch die persönlichen Erfahrungen seiner Gesprächspartner mit diesem Ausdruck zitiert er an anderer Stelle und ohne interessante Rückfragen. Schade, dass Theroux ausgerechnet die letzten fünf Buchseiten mit schwer verständlichen Allgemeinheiten füllt.

Kein Reporter-Ehrgeiz:

Mein Gesamteindruck ist: Theroux – Yankee mit Wohnsitzen in Hawaii und Massachussettes – liefert interessante Reportagen und ein paar Hintergründe, aber keine tieferen Erkenntnisse. Er umgibt sich mit mild sympathischen, hart arbeitenden Landbewohnern, engagierten Sozialarbeitern und Pfarrern. Der Ausdruck „salt of the earth“ fällt da unvermeidlich; die Ziegenzüchterin Dolores Walker Robinson nennt er gar „the Valiant Woman“.

Theroux bemüht sich jedoch nicht um Hintergründe, die etwas Reportergeist fordern: So besucht er stundenlang die freundlichen Eheleute Skaggs, die er über eine Hilfsorganisation kennenlernt. Er fragt sich, wovon sie leben (S. 364), bemüht sich aber nicht weiter – „I didn’t dare ask.“ Wie immer klingt Theroux für US-Verhältnisse politisch leicht links und äußert sich auch kritisch über Atomkraftwerke (besucht aber mehrfach mit einer seltsamen Faszination Schusswaffenmessen).

Fast möchte man das Buch loben, weil zwei typische Peinlichkeiten früherer Therouxbücher hier in den Hintergrund treten. Theroux verzichtet ganz auf Rotlichttouren oder anzügliche Bemerkungen (notiert lediglich, dass er mit Anfang 70 keinesfalls alt sei). Und: Seine Menschenverachtung und der Grant früherer Reisebücher wie Great Railway Bazaar oder Dark Star Safari sind fast verschwunden.

Der einst so zynische Theroux gibt sich als zugewandter Südstaatenflüsterer und Baumwollpflückerversteher; er zitiert mehrfach Kirchenpredigten über eine ganze Seite. Nur einmal verlässt Theroux sein Element, die einfachen Leute in den Kleinstädten, und trifft gebildete Schwarze in Little Rock, die sich jedoch abweisend verhalten (S. 393):

These were the black elite… like a shoal of leathery sharks… suspicious, chilly, with a suggestion of hauteur

(Er schreibt wie gesagt über andere, nicht über sich.)

Verallgemeinerungen:

Theroux liefert jedoch zu viele Verallgemeinerungen, wenn der Einzelfall gereicht hätte, er zitiert aufdringlich Dialekt und intoniert generell demonstrativ lässig „ammo“ statt „ammunition“. Theroux mimt den Kumpel des einfachen Mannes und sonnt sich gelegentlich in abgehangenen Klischees, als ob er persönlich sie entdeckt und erstveröffentlicht hätte.

Manche Details wiederholt er überflüssig, seine Kritik an der Clinton Foundation und anderen Hilfsorganisationen erscheint weitaus zu oft: Er kritisiert, dass sie nur in Afrika und Indien helfen, aber nicht in den US-Südstaaten, deren Landschaften und Kleinstädte ihn immer wieder an Sambia, Zimbabwe und Kenia erinnern; in seinem Afrika-Buch Zona Verde kritisiert Theroux ebendiese Hilfsorganisationen für den Schaden, den sie in Afrika angerichtet hätten.

Fotos:

Mein englisches Penguin-Taschenbuch hat 16 Seiten Farbfotos des gefeierten Magnum-Fotografen Steve McCurry. Die meisten Bilder zeigen Therouxs wichtigste Gesprächspartner in ihrer typischen Umgebung, aussagekräftig und exzellent komponiert, doch auch sehr kühl. Zweimal sieht man Theroux, einmal McCurry.

Gleich zu Anfang zitiert Paul Theroux mehrfach das Südstaatenbuch seines Freundfeindkollegen V.S. Naipaul, A Turn in the South – Theroux klingt im Vergleich leichter lesbar, aber auch oberflächlicher. Anders als Naipaul hat Theroux sich auf Kleinstädte und Soziales konzentriert.

Interessant, dass Theroux in seiner Würdigung der US-Reisebücher nicht auf Naipauls Turn in the South kommt, obwohl es dorthin gepasst hätte; stattdessen zitiert er längst vergessene Skribenten. Bei aller demonstrativen Gelehrtheit produziert Theroux immerhin auch interessante Details und Literaturtipps.

„Cliché and decay “ – die Kritiker:

  • Goodreads.com: 3,77 von 5 Lesersternen, 961 Stimmen
  • Amazon.com: 4,1 von 5 Lesersternen, 171 Stimmen (jew. März 2016)

New York Times, Dwight Garner:

Paul Theroux is in a suspiciously good mood in “Deep South,” his 10th travel book. You begin to wonder if, in his relative old age — Mr. Theroux is 74 — this inimitably caustic novelist and nonfiction writer is mellowing… Point the urbane and skeptical Mr. Theroux, who lives on Cape Cod and in Hawaii, in the direction of churches and gun shows (he visits many of each) and you might expect sulfurous ironies. Not in this book… Mr. Theroux interviews so many people (preachers, mayors, quarry workers, housing and poverty experts) and shapelessly spills their words onto the page that I’d guess nearly a third of the talk is not his own… You don’t embark on a Paul Theroux adventure to listen to other people speak. He has a penetrating mind and a pumalike style; he’s among the most consistently interesting writers of the last half-century. You want unfiltered Theroux, which is a kind of drug, a form of black tar heroin. There’s not enough of it here. ((Über Naipauls Südstaaten-Buch:)) There are many similarities between the two books. Both men glide from interview to interview. While Mr. Theroux often compares the South with Africa, Mr. Naipaul compares it with Trinidad, where he spent his childhood. Mr. Naipaul’s book is slimmer, however, and has more centrifugal force. You can imagine a young writer retracing his footsteps for a follow-up volume in 15 years. You can’t quite imagine anyone doing so with “Deep South.” The good news about this book is that Mr. Theroux’s analytical mind does emerge, if in flashes, his intellect rotating like a lighthouse on a cliff… I have no idea why he attends four or five gun shows but not one college football game. This is poor decision-making; it leads to a sameness. Mr. Theroux has no feel for music. This is too bad… Mr. Theroux doesn’t have much feel for Southern food, either, though he seems to enjoy his meat-and-threes… Some readers may find his use of dialect problematic

New York Times, Geoffrey C. Ward:

His detractors accuse him of being too much at the center of things, tossing off one-line dismissals of whole nations and sometimes displaying a prickliness his own publisher once tried to soften by calling him “endearingly ­irascible.”… a leisurely, even languid book, reiterative and sometimes simply forgetful. We’re told twice why so many motels are owned by members of the Patel clan from Gujarat, and are twice offered some of Nelson Algren’s well-worn advice to travelers… One gun show is pretty much like the next, and the author chooses to visit three of them. I lost count of the number of times he suggests that a crossroads cluster of beat-up buildings reminds him of villages he had known in Africa. Discursive asides about everything from the many meanings of the “N-word” to the moral failings of William Faulkner slow the narrative. Although a portfolio of color photographs by Steve McCurry appears at the back of the book, there are no maps, so it’s hard to remember where we’ve been or understand where we’re headed…. in the end it’s Theroux’s remarkable gift for getting strangers to reveal themselves that makes going along for this ride worthwhile.

The Washington Post kritisiert wohl am schärfsten:

The superficial stereotypes pile up at once… the author makes observations worthy of a freshman sociology major… He regularly asks old black folks about discrimination in the 1960s, school segregation or Klan violence several generations ago… Theroux expends a lot of verbiage to tell us how well read he is about the South (and everywhere else), particularly the works of Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Portis, Thomas Wolfe, William Styron, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker and Derek Walcott (the high-lit name droppings, by my count, add up to nearly 35 canonical authors). And these names get dropped for any old reason. When he encounters lots of people living in the same house, it seems like “the sort of story people call Chekhovian.” He’s read the great classics as well — Chaucer, for example — and is amused that people living in rural outbacks didn’t spend their college years in Middle English seminars… Theroux sustains this posture of exalted condescension for all of his many, many pages… His big discovery is that the poor areas of the Deep South are heartbreakingly poor — which is true… There is a quixotic quality to Theroux’s reading of literature about the South. He has filled his head with the sweepings of others’ observations and energetically blinded himself to anything that might confound his preconceptions.

Kirkus Reviews:

As thoughtful as it is evocative, the book offers insight into a significant region and its people and customs. An epically compelling travel memoir.

Financial Times:

Time and again he contrasts the federal government’s spending of millions of tax dollars in aid to Africa (the fruits of which he has witnessed on other travels) with its inaction in the face of the acute poverty under its nose in the US… a travelogue that doesn’t just pass through. Rather, he seeks here to remain in relationship with his subject. It may be a cliché but this engrossing book reminds us that despite the poverty, maybe because of it, everyone has a story to tell

The New Yorker:

The genre in which he is working naturally organizes itself into vignettes rendered with a primary focus on literary artistry, rather than analysis, so he never has to state a full-dress argument, or even say exactly what he was looking for in those four long driving tours. The South remains more rural than the Northeast, but by now, as in the rest of the country, most people live in metropolitan areas. Still, Theroux tells us, “I stayed away from the big cities and the coastal communities. I kept to the Lowcountry, the Black Belt, the Delta, the backwoods, the flyspeck towns.” This principle may have been a way of simplifying his writing assignment: these are places where some people eat squirrels and raccoons, and are obviously unusual in a way that people in the Atlanta suburbs are not. That makes them easier to portray vividly… Theroux strikes an empathetic, mournful tone rather than a mocking one. The people he visits are older, settled. Many of them either work in or are clients of social-service and community-development agencies. More are white than are black.

Geographical:

The descriptions are warm and intimate, like stumbling back in time to a place where conversation is most people’s principle daily pastime and the pace of life slows to a crawl. As always his interactions are poignant and insightful, and none are included without purpose. The picture he paints of the South is of a place with its own character, its own identity and its own approach to life. And yet, as he gets further and further under the skin of the South – visiting the churches, the diners, the gun shows – this romanticism gradually gives way to a harsher and more brutal reality. The overriding poverty becomes more and more apparent. So too the tension, the injustice and the overwhelming sense that people feel ignored by much of the rest of the country. He is treated with warmth, but, being a northerner, simultaneously with suspicion. Despite his best efforts, even the great Paul Theroux is unable to truly blend in… There’s an overarching intimacy that’s hard to put your finger on. The people he speaks to are so open, so engaging, so at ease, that we feel drawn into their world entirely.

Publishers Weekly:

Free of the sense of alienation that marked his recent travelogues, this luminous sojourn is Theroux’s best outing in years… The best travel writing, including Theroux’s own, is the story less of places visited than of transmutations in the traveler. However, in “Deep South,” an urbane tale of rural slumming, the privileged author, who takes “melancholy pleasure” roaming incognito among lost souls, remains unchanged. Theroux is a perceptive witness who, like the reader, returns from below the Mason-Dixon Line informed but not transformed.

SFGate:

Theroux encounters the South through a literary template. He frequently invokes William Faulkner, James Agee and Erskine Caldwell as reference points for what he sees.

The Literary South:

Throughout the book, Mr. Theroux appears to be on a quest to prove the stereotypes… readers of Mr. Theroux’s latest book will fail to get a true picture of the Deep South based on his travels around the region, as seems to be the case for Mr. Theroux.

Wall Street Journal:

Each of the book’s four main sections, undertaken in the four seasons, features a lyrical description of Mr. Theroux’s home in Massachusetts as a contrast to another drive South, a seasonality that adds depth and perspective to his journal… The main subjects of “Deep South” are poverty and race, phenomena intimately intertwined, which he disentangles with a clear eye, his attitude sympathetic but not sentimental. What he discovers can be shocking… Mr. Theroux brings a refreshing candor to the subject of race, avoiding both Manichaean moralism and sugary optimism… Mr. Theroux’s narrative of his visit to Money, Miss., where 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered in 1955 for whistling at a white girl, is a compact storytelling masterpiece, harrowing and suspenseful. Faithful Therouvians may conclude from reading “Deep South” that age has mellowed him: This Yankee from Cape Cod manifestly loves the region. A writer sometimes accused of misanthropy, he considers this divided land with a remarkably open mind. There is no doubt that he is more interested in black Southerners than whites; he seeks them out in picturesque settings such as churches and soul-food cafes, yet he meets white people at gun shows and even the Ku Klux Klan headquarters in Philadelphia, Miss… He leaves nothing out, including trivia about driving routes and lunch menus… On each successive journey, Mr. Theroux revisits many of the people and places he encountered on his previous trips, with no perceptible increase in wisdom… There isn’t a dull page in the book, but there is some repetition. Even readers who share the author’s disdain for Bill Clinton may grow weary of Mr. Theroux’s bitter complaint, repeated many times in identical language, that the former president’s charity, the Clinton Initiative, gives aid to Africa and India but offers nothing to the region that made him.

Charleston Currents:

I grab the book and want to hurl it through the window. These fits particularly came after one of Theroux’s elitist, degrading attempts at phonetically capturing the Southern accent. But the book also shows he’s a great storyteller who occasionally makes an interesting observation… He found cliché and decay. He found desolation, poverty, hopelessness and hunger in rural South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and elsewhere… Despite the book’s narrowness, Theroux got a couple of things right… If you must, read Deep South. But the 441-page book can be summarized simply: People in the rural South are good folks, but a lot of them are poor.  (Thanks. We know that.)

Los Angeles Review of Books:

Regrettably, Deep South reads as disaster porn for those who can’t bother to renew their passports — a Heart of Darkness set in the Southern heartland. Theroux thirsts to walk amid the ruins of American civilization, a.k.a. “Dystopia Dixie,” to find “hunger and squalor and great poverty.”… poverty-centric odyssey… Theroux’s ramblings, on the road and on the page, come off as half-baked... Repeatedly, he falls into the trap of reminding the reader that he is a world traveler par excellence, by comparing the South with previous journeys, rather than experiencing the place for what it is… often — too many times to count — Theroux compares the rural South to Africa and India… Besides the South’s abject and long-sustained poverty, little else about the region appears to truly inspire Theroux as he travels through South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas… Perhaps Theroux could have gained a deeper understanding of the South if he wasn’t so often demeaning the Southerners he meets along the way. In Theroux’s South, he feels it necessary to transcribe a man’s accents as if he were a junior linguist with a dissertation deadline. “Kin Ah he’p you […] in inny way?” asks one of the first strangers he meets along the road, before answering his own question: “Ay mo explain the South to you.”

Jan Morris in The Spectator:

He has been a generous friend of mine for many years, though, and I hope I will not be accused of bias when I say that none of his previous travel books has so well illustrated the depth of his humanity, at once worldly, detached and sympathetic, as does this diligent work about the American South — the first he has written about his own country. It is not really a travel book at all, except in the most elementary way… Deep South is more truly a work of philosophy and analysis than of movement, and indeed includes some sharpish criticisms of conventional travel writing and its compulsory hardships… Black, white or indeterminate, nearly everyone seems resolved to bring out the best in Mr Paul, and they almost always succeed. Much of what he tells us about his journeys is familiar even to a foreigner… He largely ignores the big cities of the South, but seems to me to offer unmatched interpretations of the region as a whole… The prevailing atmosphere of the book, though, is gently valedictory.

Boston Globe:

Most of the book is given over to tales of the inequity between black and white, the perennial subject matter of any serious assessment of life in the deep South. But what’s refreshing about this book is that blame isn’t so predictably or singularly assigned as belonging to the usual suspects: white Republican rednecks.

Dallas News:

His storytelling is brightest in narrative scenes throbbing with local color. However, the momentum stalls with diversionary lectures (See: seven pages of dogging other travel writers; a 12-page rumination on the N-word) and other reminders of the author’s intellectual and geographic prowess. He is endlessly comparing parts of the South to Third World countries… Theroux travels with a baggage of assumptions that often dictate his itinerary: the recurring themes of poverty, racism and a post-Civil-War “prevailing mood of bitter defeat”… Few of his characters are young, educated or live in cities. Many of them speak phonetically — “Kin I he’p you in inny way?”— except for the ones who share his views; they speak with proper spelling… he belittles points of pride in a region accustomed to being treated like America’s armpit, comparing Crimson Tide football fanhood to “Islam in its most jihadi form” and poking fun at Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s “funny” hat… After visiting black churches that embrace a white Yankee with genuine warmth, he concludes that the church is “the beating heart — the vitality, the hope — of a Southern community.” Amen to that… Theroux is extremely well-read, as he reminds the reader with exhaustive (and exhausting) literary allusions and an entire chapter riffing on “The Paradoxes of Faulkner” (though he misspells Absalom! Absalom!)… a book that reflects your reality like a funhouse mirror at the county fair… self-fulfilling assumptions that results in a distorted portrait of a place that is much more diverse — and far more hopeful — than this book conveys

Charlotte Observer:

((Naipauls Südstaaten-Buch is an)) uneven, often superficial and cliché-ridden book about the region. ((Naipaul)) didn’t spend much time in the South, stuck mostly to cities and college towns, and neglected the trans-Mississippi South entirely. Theroux takes an entirely different tack, spending lots of time in the region, particularly in its most impoverished areas, among people that time has seemingly forgot… Theroux’s focus on impoverished places and poor people is exceptionally informative and extremely timely, offering readers insight into places and people well off the (New South) grid… “Deep South” is not a study in pity and pathos. Rather, the various (and varied) people he meets in backwater churches and convenience stores, and at gun shows, pawn shops and social-service facilities are resilient, and, generally speaking, they have been able to maintain a measure of dignity and a margin of hope. The book’s value is enhanced by several incisive interludes – meditations on Faulkner and on Southern literature more broadly – offered as lagniappes by the author, a splendid guest, who is welcome to return to the South anytime.

Council of Conservative Citizens:

Theroux traveled to the Deep South mainly to explore in the flesh his long held preconceptions about the region. This ideological framework was drawn from three sources – the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement, Southern literature, and his contacts with local anti-poverty workers. Basically, Paul Theroux is someone who has read a lot of books about the South, mostly fiction or about civil rights, and that generally dictated his subject matter and the places to which he traveled. In spite of his deep immersion in Southern literature, I was stunned to follow along and discover that Theroux was ignorant of some of the most basic facts about the region… Reading “Deep South,” it felt like Theroux was touring the equivalent of 21st century Italy and writing about the Roman Empire or the Renaissance.

Washington Independant Review of Books:

Deep South works because Theroux is a master of his craft, but also because he has just the right amount of road-weary wisdom to counter centuries of mythmaking. He does all this with clarity and charm. And — ever the untiring traveler — he keeps coming back to the South.

Australian Book Review:

Like Naipaul, who covered similar terrain in A Turn in the South, he ignores Louisiana.


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