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New travel memoirs from Paul Theroux, Patti Smith – The Seattle Times

Travel memoirs come in many variations, whether it be the unvarnished language of a journal that was never intended to be published, or the fine-tuned reflections of an author on his or her home turf, replete with oddball residents, dicey side streets and shopping suggestions for — if the writer happens to be Truman Capote — “an ivory umbrella cane sans umbrella.”

Anything with an “I” in it might qualify as a travel memoir — which inevitably makes the road trip a favorite genre-within-the-genre. This season Paul Theroux departs from the largely self-centric journeys that road trips so often become, and dives deep into the backcountry of the southern United States, taking time out to contemplate the “look at me” brand of travel journalism, and what the writer owes to both the reader and to those who live in the destination.

And then there are the memories and tales of strange and quixotic trips that loop back and forth in time, a recurring motif in the collage of a singularly creative life, that of Patti Smith.

A look at Theroux’s and Smith’s books:

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“Deep South”by Paul Theroux. Photos by Steve McCurry. (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

Paul Theroux has a name for the glossy version of the South that so often appears in tourism brochures and travel magazines: Old Magnolia South. This is the south of antebellum mansions, oak-lined avenues, rolling horse farms and atmospheric cities filled with fine shops and top-notch chefs. Like a theme park, Old Magnolia South is entertaining and lovely, and, at least on the surface, unburdened by poverty, racism and the complexities of history.

You won’t find much evidence of that place in Theroux’s newest book, “Deep South,” available later this month. Instead you’ll find towns like Arcola, Mississippi, “a cluster of poor houses and shacks and shattered shops,” and Allendale, South Carolina, bypassed by the construction of I-95 decades ago, and in the author’s eyes, “a vision of ruin, of decay, of utter emptiness.” And then there are the ghostly places like Money, Mississippi, population 94, home to the ruins of the grocery store outside of which 14-year-old Emmett Till is said to have whistled at a white woman in 1955 and paid a horrific price for it.

Keeping largely to the back roads and local highways, Theroux attends small-town church services and crowded gun shows, and dines in local soul food restaurants. He meets preachers and community volunteers; farmers and mayors; weapons enthusiasts and immigrants from India who run cheap motels in the most out-of-the-way places; people with vivid recollections of segregation and handed-down memories of slavery. Quoting Faulkner whenever the situation calls for it, Theroux strives hard not to be the “wisecracking wayfarer” as he returns again and again to the places he longs to understand: “the Lowcountry, the Black Belt, the Delta, the backwoods, the flyspeck towns.”

There will surely be some Southern readers who will be dubious of the views of an “upstart from another country, the cold, iron-dark North.” And someone out there is bound to take offense at the author’s description of one man’s Southern accent as “ponderous, fuddled beyond reason.”

But Theroux is sincere in his affection for this hardscrabble South, a place of warmth and deep poverty and physical beauty that, he convincingly argues, is as deserving of lavish grants by big-name foundations as a Third World country.

Not many travelers are likely to duplicate Theroux’s long, circuitous, sometimes difficult route, but reading the book will give them an excellent idea of what lies beyond the safety zone of Old Magnolia South.

“M Train” by Patti Smith. (Knopf.)

Years ago, when Patti Smith’s husband offered to take her anywhere in the world, she knew exactly where she wanted to go: St.-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, site of the crumbling penal colony that the writer and petty criminal Jean Genet had regarded as “hallowed ground.” Her mission was to gather stones from the ruins to pass along to the ailing Genet who had longed to spend time among hardened criminals.

Derelict prison as dream destination? Smith’s choice is a perfect illustration of how she travels: with purpose, with passion and, if necessary, with great effort. (Getting to St.-Laurent-du-Maroni involved traveling through Barbados, Grenada, Haiti and Suriname, with a pirogue trip across a piranha-inhabited river.)

In “M Train,” to be published next month, Smith writes about her life in New York, her love of cafes, her favorite books and television shows, her cats, her memories, joyful and melancholy, of her husband, the guitarist Fred Smith. But it is her travels — idiosyncratic, ritualistic, vividly recalled — that provide a unifying theme. “I believe in movement,” she writes. “I believe in that lighthearted balloon, the world.”

And so, going backward and forward in time, she describes trips to Mexico, France, Morocco, Japan and other places, often consulting tarot cards before she leaves, or looking for signs that will reveal her next trip. A splash of sake on a restaurant table in New York resembles an island that could be Japan. And soon, there she is, in a cemetery in Kamakura, paying homage to Akira Kurosawa.

Cemeteries, in fact, are a favorite pilgrimage. In Charleville, France, she leaves a string of Ethiopian trade beads near the tombstone of Rimbaud. In Morocco, she buries the stones she had gathered in St.-Laurent-du-Maroni at the graveside of Genet, who had died before they could be delivered to him.

But cemeteries aren’t the only draw. She will travel to, say, Switzerland, to photograph Hermann Hesse’s typewriter (which, along with other photographs by Smith, is reproduced in the book), or to Veracruz, Mexico, to find the perfect cup of coffee.

“We are guided by roses, the scent of a page,” she writes. “Hadn’t I traveled all the way to King’s College after reading of the infamous scuffle between Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein in the book ‘Wittgenstein’s Poker’?”

As for the inconvenient aspects of travel — canceled flights, lost luggage, jet lag — they are, in their own ways, opportunities. After all, a late plane might be a sign to catch a flight to another destination. And the “thick torpor” of jet lag is often “coupled with a surprisingly internal luminosity.”

New travel memoirs from Paul Theroux, Patti Smith – The Seattle Times

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