Sunday, July 14, 2019

Spying on the South

Tony Horwitz's Spying on the South is funny, thought provoking, and ultimately a bit frightening book. He has been a writer for the New Yorker and a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, but this "road" story puts me more in the stylistic realm of Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson.  Thematically though it falls into a basket with some things I've read recently like J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and David McCullough's Pioneers.

The book is built on a modern re-tracing of the Southern travels of Frederick Law Olmsted just before the Civil War.  Olmsted, you may remember, went on in later years to become the superlative landscape architect who designed Central Park in New York City and many other public spaces. Olmsted's travels took him through through the deep South by steamboat, wagon, horseback, and on foot and though  Horwitz cheats a bit by sometimes using a rental car he does sample the rails, a river barge, and even a mule. Olmsted, says Horwitz,  starts off with a desire to write about the South as objectively as possible, but by the end of his journeys he has become a fairly committed abolitionist. What is truly frightening though is that Olmsted's reports on the actions of slaveholders and viciousness of their their fight to retain slavery are revealed by Horwitz to be still current if now more submerged today. This sad note is salvaged somewhat by Horwitz's lively and humorous depictions of the folks he meets in eateries, bars, and businesses along the way. 

I enjoyed the coverage of all the aorta clogging southern food and precise portraits of people like a woman of German and Mexican heritage who described herself as a "beaner schnitzel."  Small town talk is often both humorous and  revealing. For instance one local small town resident comments,  "You don't really belong (in this town)  unless you have a park or street named after you."  Horwitz also has the knack of  breaking into the natural suspicion of strangers and getting them to talk. There are delightful stories about Huey Long, Mud Festivals replete with monster trucks, and even mule wrangling. Olmsted  often had to stay in  horrible inns with poor food and Horwitz  often approximates this by finding his subjects in seedy motels and dark rundown bars. He asked one denizen "What do people do here?"  The reply was "Meth and some Opioids."  In another tavern he asked a patron, "What's your occupation?"  The sad response, after a long pause, was, "I'm a barfly."

Unfortunately these tales stop being funny or entertaining after a while. There is just too much   cynicism and despair in too many of these folks. Their future is either bleak or non-existent. Drink, drugs, and lack of education are endemic. Olmsted's journey ultimately ended with similar irony. His visions of agrarian bounty punctuated by bucolic parklands and grassy meadows have now been eroded by cookie cutter suburbs and malls. The budding cities that Olmsted toured so long ago are now disorganized concrete jungles with little connection between their cores and their surroundings and the many small communities that once dotted the landscape are now dispiriting decaying shells of habitation.  How did all those sturdy pioneers miss the boat on all parts of the scale. We now are facing a societal and personal loss that may not be solvable by our technology. One worker interviewed by Horwitz laments the days of his father whose stated code was "All you need is what you need, not what you want. . . If you had too much you took it to your neighbors."  That world may indeed be gone in the Trumpian landscape, but the lack of respect for diversity and the environment,  approval of fraud, and outright worship of naked power and nastiness over knowledge and empathy makes me tremble along with Mr. Horwitz for our future.   

No comments: