After fifty years spent travelling the world - Africa, Asia, China, Oceania, India – and writing about it often brilliantly, Paul Theroux, Louis’s father, did something different. In 2012, he sat into his car and left his Cape Cod home to investigate, not so much what was on his own doorstep, but what was near enough for him to have taken it for granted. 

He went South, to the southern states of South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, avoiding the cities for his investigations, checking out instead the smaller settlements, the rural scene. He visited churches in towns where there is virtually a church on every street corner. He ambled carefully around gun shows, where people - mostly males - were polite, friendly and non-confrontational. He chatted to the locals in cheap diners, he met community officials trying to rescue people from dire poverty. They paid their light bills, bought them food, helped house them. He heard about the catfish industry, seriously threatened by Vietnamese imports, he learned about the inevitable outsourcing to China. He met a troubled Vietnam vet wearing a Vets cap made in Vietnam.

As a Yankee sitting at one of those Southern tables, he got blamed by an embittered woman for things that happened 150 years previously. “You made us eat rats,’’ she told the author, referring to the indelible Civil War - the defeat is fresh in the minds of many Southerners of a certain age. Unforgettable too for many is the brutal murder of the young black 14-year old Emmett Till, a visitor from Chicago, who was  beaten to death and his body dumped in a river for the offence of wolf whistling at the proprietor's wife. Emmett's two killers were acquitted, and one of them lived on in the area until as recently as 1980.

On July 10 last, the Confederate flag came down at South Carolina’s statehouse in the capital, Columbia, despite trenchant opposition from many locals. Theroux’s book was already with the publishers by the time the flag - which is a potent symbol of racism for some - came down. He had been and gone when nine people were killed by a young gun-man at a prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, ultimately the occurence that prompted the flag's removal. The victims at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church included the senior pastor and state senator Clementa C. Pinckney.

Yet, in the course of his travels, Theroux heard about church burnings - burn the church and you burn the social centre, the meeting house, you kill the heart of a community. In such cases, however, they build the church again and come back stronger.

In the course of a number of visits, months or seasons apart, and often circling back to the same towns, - places with wonderful names like Greensboro or Orangeburg - the author explored unemployment, homelessness, and the race question. He learned about Klan activities and how segregation worked. His accomplice Steve McCurry took colour photographs of the men and women he talked to, alongside images of forlorn dereliction - a ruined motel, a former sharecropper’s shack, an abandoned gas station, an ornate but abandoned garden.

Theroux’s book ponders with tactful sympathy the vexed questions that continue unresolved, but this reviewer believes that the book could have been shorter (it runs to 464 pages.) The concluding section features a piece on farmers in Arkansas which is far too long for the general reader. While the author does attempt to finish with a rather half-hearted tribute to the Missisippi River, one does feel to that he ran out of steam several chapters back.

Paddy Kehoe