|Paul Theroux speaking at Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington, DC on September 30th.|
For Sir Vidia S. Naipaul had published his own memoir of a tour of America's Southern states in 1989. A Turn in the South documented his road trip to Atlanta, Charleston, Tallahassee, Tuskeegee, Nashville, Chapel Hill as well as a visit to Eudora Welty and the birthplace of Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi. At the time, Historian C. Vann Woodward reviewed Naipaul's Southern travelogue favorably in The New York Times.
If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery, Theroux's book is an homage to his one-time mentor. "One-time" because in 1998, Paul Theroux wrote Sir Vidia's Shadow, which portrayed his putative friend as a monstrous racist who called Arabs and Africans derogatory names. Theroux was quoted in a British newspaper condemning him as a tyrant: "I mainly saw his sadness, his tantrums, his envy, his meanness, his greed and his uncontrollable anger." The Daily Mail added this stinger in 2009: "He got his millions, a knighthood and the Nobel Prize, but the karmic twist is that no one gives a toss about his books."
Apparently, however, Theroux himself gave a toss.
His memoir was so bitter that the New York Times review concluded: "What we have here is a man who claims to be recalling a friendship when obviously he's seeking revenge." In the intervening decade and a half, Naipaul and Theroux managed to patch up their literary feud, culminating in a public ceremony of reconciliation at the Jaipur Literary Festival this past January, where Theroux embraced a weeping Naipaul, now confined to a wheelchair due to Parkinson's Disease.
When I had heard Naipaul speak at Sixth & I Synagogue a while back, he appeared as an ex-Colonial who had bettered his betters--a civilized, witty, and curmudgeonly man-of-the-world. He spoke the Queen's English with Churchillian clarity. Naipaul was blunt, outspoken, cantankerous, and provocative--taking on Political Correctness and Islamic Fundamentalism in defense of Western Civilization. A bit ridiculously Victorian, but delightful in his eccentricity.
On the other hand, when not dissenting from Naipaul, Theroux appeared as a Filene's Basement version of Henry James. But, instead of offering insights into the human condition wrapped under dense prose, he uttered unremarkable platitudes designed to flatter the liberal sensibility of the NPR crowd.
He had never been to the South before writing this book, he said, although he had traveled all over the world. But he had wanted to support the Civil Rights Movement, which is why he went to Africa with the Peace Corps. He said he was sorry that he had lost touch with a Medford High School friend who had gone to work with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. So now, some 50 years after Selma, the latter-day Freedom Rider decided to visit small towns in the South to document the suffering of African-Americans in places like Allendale, South Carolina. Some of his concerns were still more dated, such as his interest in the case of Emmett Till. It was as if Theroux's world view had been frozen, Rip van Winkle-like, in the 1960s...
And, "surprise, surprise" as Gomer Pyle used to say, Theroux discovered the natives were friendly. He was invited to share meals, to a Black church, and a Rosenwald School, as well as gun shows...where the natives were even friendlier, he noticed, because everyone was armed.
Theroux likewise observed that roads were good, he go anywhere, could drive in circles if he liked, that his car was like a magic carpet that would take him anywhere he wanted to go (unlike railway journeys abroad), and he could receive NPR stations in his radio well below the Mason-Dixon Line.
Like Walker Evans, whom he claimed to admire, he had a political agenda. Theroux intended to document poverty and devastation in the wake of textile plants gone to China. He said he found it in abandoned roadside attractions and factories along US 301. His conclusion: the US needs to spend more international development money at home. Not surprisingly, the USAID and State Department staffers in the audience appreciated his comparison of South Carolina to Zimbabwe. According to Theroux Arkansas was full of racists and Christians, and the Clintons refused to help Black farmers. The crowd was standing-room-only.
Of course, to differentiate Theroux's work--which appeared to recycle Southern cliches not revised since he first heard them in 1965--the Yankee scribbler was at pains to declare his book was completely different from the earlier landmark volume by Naipaul.
He noted that Naipaul went to big cities, while he avoided the metropolis in favor of small towns. He pointed out that Naipaul had a driver, didn't even know how to drive, but Theroux drove his own car. Naipaul didn't bother to visit Black churches, but Theroux sought them out. Etc. In other words, Theroux was better traveler than Naipaul--just as George Bernard Shaw claimed he was a better writer than Shakespeare.
Concluding that he felt "at home" in the South, the actual resident of Cape Cod and Hawaii, in his best Yankee Brahmin intonation, suggested that the Politics and Prose audience might even--gasp--want to drive to see the South for themselves. Not only was it perfectly safe, it was only a few hours away!
Imagine that...who knew Washington was so close to Virginia?
From Theroux's presentation, it became clear that his narrative was one of cleansing Puritan redemption--like Abolitionists of old, his claim to moral superiority would enable him to uplift the oppressed in the South who were poor, childlike, and dependent upon the kindness of strangers, especially Yankee carpetbaggers with development schemes to reconstruct the region in their own imaginations.
In the end, the complaint seemed to be that while Naipaul only saw the South that really existed, Theroux saw the South through the horn-rimmed lenses of New York's Upper West Side, Cambridge and New Haven, perhaps even the view from London, England. It was not just picturesque locale for tourism, but rather poor, backwards, and in need of guidance from the Elect, such as himself.
As Theroux's preposterous accent ebbed and flowed, as he name-dropped schoolmate Mike Bloomberg, as he derided graduates of Andover and Exeter and Groton he knew as as "dim" though "rich," it became clear that the power of Ivy Leaguers like Theroux is a con game, dependent upon browbeating listeners into submission using a club of moral superiority and a hammer of assumed greater intellect.
"I'm smart, and you're dumb," appeared to be his bottom line.
In assuming that public pose, Paul Theroux revealed himself to be the palest shadow of V.S. Naipaul, indeed.