Reading made me a traveler; travel sent me back to books. When I got home, I immersed myself in Southern fiction. The Faulkner I had read in my last interlude, and the places I had seen in the spring, made me curious to know how the novels and short stories located in the Deep South might give me better access to the reflective interior of those states, so passive, so mute. Many Southern writers are defiant in their belief in a nebulous concept of regionalism – that they are expressing in their work the heart and soul of the South. Faulkner’s conviction in this was so strong that his fiction seemed to define the South, its history and its people. Though the more I read him, the greater my realization that, for all his obsession with detail, he left unwritten, undefined, the simple fact that for his entire life he lived at the edge of a university campus that demeaned its black workers and excluded black students. Fascinated to the point of mania by the past, he seemed bored, annoyed, and uncomprehending of the enormous events of the present to which he’d been an eyewitness.

On my previous trip, on the banks of the Savannah River I had passed by Wrens, Georgia, childhood home of Erskine Caldwell, who, apparently inspired by the country folk he knew, wrote Tobacco Road (1932), one of his earliest and most successful novels. This is the saga of the sharecropper Jeeter Lester, his wife Ada, who has no teeth (‘she dipped snuff since she was eight years old’), his son Dude, who marries a much older woman named Bessie (who has no nose), his daughter Ellie Mae (who is mute and has a harelip) and his daughter Pearl, whom he marries off to his friend Lov Bensey when she turns twelve. This twelve-year-old wife sleeps on the floor, refusing to share the marital bed with the much older Lov, who is aggrieved at his child wife’s disgust. What the hail is going on here?

In his works of fiction, once immensely popular for the very coarseness for which they are belittled now — they sold in the tens of millions in the 1930s and ’40s — Caldwell created a popular image of the South as a landscape peopled by grotesques. Most of his white characters seemed to come from Dogpatch, L’il Abner’s hometown, which first appeared in the Al Capp comic strip in 1934. Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre(1933), just as outlandish in its cast, along with Faulkner’s Sanctuary(1931), set the tone for the Southern novel of tenants and sharecroppers in which the freakish and the darkly comic predominated – bizarre characters, unspeakable crimes, unnatural acts, shocking sexual situations – almost as a form of literary indirection. Why does this seem like a trick? Because black life, the racial rejection and the peasant misery only obliquely enter these narratives.

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Deep South by Paul Theroux

Though Caldwell’s novel Trouble in July (1940) and his long story ‘Kneel to the Rising Sun’ (1934) concern the lynching and harrying of innocent black men, and Faulkner’s Light in August (1932) has a near-lynching that ends in the shooting and castration of Joe Christmas, these works are exceptional. Southern fiction and its grotesques, sometimes termed ‘Southern gothic’, seldom touched upon (and seemed to accept) the day-to-day injustices of the 1920s and ’30s. So we have a nightmarish literature of dwarfs, hunchbacks, albinos, night hags and deviants (inSanctuary, the impotent Popeye, who has ‘yellow clots for eyes’, rapes Temple Drake with a corncob), but little mention of forced labour, racial violence, extreme segregation and the lynching of blacks. You see this Witches’ Sabbath of freaks throughout Flannery O’Conner and Carson McCullers and in the early Truman Capote.

‘The Artificial Nigger’, Flannery O’Connor’s much-praised story in the collection A Good Man is Hard to Find (1955), shows black life as a grotesque netherworld. In another tale in this collection, ‘Good Country People’, a bogus Bible salesman runs off with the prosthetic leg of a woman he has failed to seduce. Good fun, you think, but O’Connor’s intention is often spiritual redemption and high-mindedness, as in her brilliant short story ‘Revelation’, from Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965), describing the enlightenment of Mrs Ruby Turpin, which buds in a doctor’s waiting room and blooms in a pigpen. The story is about class, race and God’s grace. Here, in a paragraph of Southern paranoia, Mrs Turpin tortures herself with a farcical dilemma:

“Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her ‘There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white trash,’ what would she have said? ‘Please, Jesus, please,’ she would have said, ‘just let me wait until there’s another place available,’ and he would have said, ‘No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.’ She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, ‘All right, make me a nigger then – but that don’t mean a trashy one.’ And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.”

Carson McCullers’s novel The Member of the Wedding (1946) is the story of a twelve- year-old Southern girl, Frankie Addams, and her assorted friends and family. By chance, she meets a soldier on furlough, who persuades her to visit his hotel room, where he attempts to rape her. Her black cook, Berenice Sadie Brown, blind in one eye, wears a blue glass eye: ‘It stared out fixed and wild from her quiet coloured face.’ A transvestite, Lily Mae Jenkins, puts in an appearance. An important experience for Frankie is her visit to the House of Freaks at the Chattahoochee Exposition, where she sees the Giant, the Midget, the Fat Lady, the Alligator Boy and the Wild Nigger, though ‘some said he was not a genuine Wild Nigger, but a crazy coloured man from Selma – he ate live rats.’ Later, Frankie wonders whether she will grow into a freak and, she reflects, the near- rape by the soldier was ‘like a minute in the fair Crazy House’.

Hardly fifty pages into Capote’s debut novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms (1948), we have met a witch-like woman (‘long ape-like arms . . . a wart on her chin . . . dirty- nailed fingers’), a black dwarf (‘a little pygmy’), a one-hundred-year-old man named Jesus Fever and a long-necked woman, a cook, who ‘was almost a freak, a human giraffe’. Colourful, perhaps, but you have no notion that this narrative is taking place in a bleak segregated town; the horrors of the everyday are an accepted fact, not worth mentioning.

Reading made me a traveler; travel sent me back to books.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) seems on the surface to be a worthy evaluation of small-town Southern values, even if it is tediously plotty, overwritten and predictable: the black labourer on trial for manhandling, throttling and raping the white woman has a withered arm and could not possibly have done the deed, but he is found guilty and ends up shot dead. The critic Jeffrey Meyers has referred to the novel as ‘a sentimental, simple-minded rip-off of [Faulkner’s] Intruder in the Dust’. And my brother Alexander has called attention to its ‘ecological fascism’, asserting that while the novel insists ‘it is wrong for anyone to kill a mockingbird which so sweetly sings its heart out for us, it is nevertheless all right to shoot blue jays – this, when the headline theme of this so-called heartfelt, liberal novel unapologetically attacks the extremes of racism, bigotry and ethnic selection.’ With a cast of stereotypes confirming every conventional prejudice against the Deep South, the book has sold in the millions.

Look closer and you see that Mockingbird, which most readers took to be a tale of the intolerant 1950s South, is set (decorous courtroom talk) ‘in this year of grace 1935’, and it, too, has a line-up of freaks, including Misses Tutti and Frutti and the hideous racist Mrs Dubose: ‘Her face was the colour of a pillowcase, and the corners of her mouth glistened with wet, which inched like a glacier down the deep grooves enclosing her chin.’ Turns out Mrs Dubose is a morphine addict. Boo Radley, taken to be a weirdo, turns out to be a hero. The news that Harper Lee was releasing another novel, Go Set a Watchman, written before Mockingbird and apparently rejected by her publisher, filled me with gloom.

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The tall-tale tradition of Southern life as a malignancy – ‘gothic’ is an elevating misnomer meant to ornament or dignify it – has persisted. The work of the late Barry Hannah, a Mississippian (born 1942), is an example. His fiction, too, has been described as ‘darkly comic’ and ‘set in a phantasmagoric South’. His stories, especially those in Airships (1978), have an unusual garrulity and undeniable power, a tipsy love of language and broad humour; they are memorable for the utter absurdity of their situations. The same can be said for Charles Portis, whose name is solely attached to the comical Western True Grit. Portis was born and still lives in Arkansas, and his work is inspired by life in Arkansas even when the work is not set there. The Dog of the South, a brilliant road book – a manic drive from Little Rock to the Honduran jungle – is a good and hilarious example of this, and so is Norwood, which features an ex-circus midget, Edward Ratner, ‘the world’s smallest perfect fat man’. Most of the gringos in Gringos, which is set in Mexico, are misfits and fantasists.

The best of these outlandish writers is Portis, because of the consistency of his humour, his fluency, his ear for the nuances and inflections of Southern speech, and his comic purity – his wish (nearly always achieved) to produce laughter. His characters, such as the con man Dr Reo Symes, enlarge themselves with their talk, which is usually paranoia or bluff. ‘A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later’ is one of the compact observations in The Dog of the South. ‘They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.’

Hannah and Portis broadened and deepened the same furrow that was ploughed in the Southern soil by Caldwell and Faulkner, and the fantastications of their extravagant prose seem like a diversionary tactic. In the work of these writers, something odd and evasive is also taking place. It is as if an alternative reality, verging on a crude surrealism (‘phantasmagoric’), in the form of mutilated and misshapen whites and freakish blacks, a sideshow of distraction, was invented to deflect from the bald facts of Southern life, the boredom and poverty and fatigue, the pedestrian cruelties and common abuses, the sorrows, the fatal misunderstandings.

This was why I felt so strongly about the writing of Mary Ward Brown, modest in scope but unsparing in its scrutiny. And the interconnected stories in Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples (1949) were a masterly evocation of a Delta town in Mississippi. I was not a fan of Harper Lee’s over-praised Mockingbird, preferring her fellow Alabamian William March (1893–1954), best known for his last novel, The Bad Seed, and the obscure author of earlier ones, Come In at the Door and The Looking Glass, and many great short stories, as well as a superb war novel with multiple narrators, Company K. His story ‘Runagate Niggers’, in Some Like Them Short (1939), is an ironic account of racial injustice and debt slavery. His work is without fantastication and is to my taste; to the land and people it depicted, it is devastatingly truthful.

All of these writers are white Southerners. The South’s black writers, by contrast, have no need to resort to fantastication: the truth behind their fiction is so bizarre that the grotesque comes first-hand, ready-made. From the South’s earliest black novelist, William Wells Brown – who partly based his 1853 novel, Clotel: or, The President’s Daughter, on Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings – through Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright and Ernest Gaines to Alice Walker, the works of black writers are more factual, contain more obvious self-portraiture, are often polemical in their sentimental rage and are emphatically racial in their indignation. And with the exception of Gaines, none of these writers remained in the South. For example, Brown, an escaped slave, died in Boston in 1884.