Where Timeless Themes Hang Like Spanish Moss

A TURN IN THE SOUTH by V. S. Naipaul, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 307 pp. $18.95

A prickly writer, V.S. Naipaul tries so hard not to offend that it's hard not to be offended.

This book, like the South itself, is drenched in loss. Nothing is seen unless it's d'ej`a vu. Naipaul has to use historical and cultural analogies to understand what he sees, and he has to see it twice for himself, or through the eyes of another. At first the black activist Hosea Williams looks like a showman and operator to him; later he compares him, with respect, to Gandhi.

An Indian colonial who left Trinidad for England when he was 18, Naipaul has cultivated, in 20 books of fiction and commentary, a reserved style that can be taken by the sensitive reader as contemptuous of his own less precise, more readily articulated feelings.

The original theme of ``A Turn in the South'' was race. Critics have attacked Naipaul before for his ``snide'' comments about blacks.

It was at the 1984 Democratic Party convention in Dallas that Naipaul started to think about a trip into the American South. Politics and race are never far from each other in his mind. On the trip, he learned to subordinate both to religion. Not given to enthusiasms himself (he speculates that the heat of the summer would drive anybody to religion), Naipaul is most struck by the way various types of Christianity fill the void left in the heart of Southerners.

The nature of this void is gradually revealed in interviews short and long. Naipaul shows us the South through the eyes and words of a large cast of characters, black and white, mostly unknown. A few are writers; the interview with Eudora Welty, brief and specific, focuses on the frontier mentality of Southern whites. He starts with politicians and journalists in Atlanta, keeps returning to religious figures, especially Christian fundamentalists, and ends up with rednecks and country music writers in Nashville. Along the way he meets a few folks he genuinely likes, especially the poet Jim Applewhite, whose verses in the last pages shine like panned gold after the wandering, sifting motion of the rest of the book. Son of an old tobacco family, Applewhite doesn't smoke - and that renunciation is typical of the new South.

For his complex fabric of voices, Naipaul uses a loose weave of syntax that avoids logical subordination - that would be too reminiscent of the old hierarchies. His favorite word is not ``but'' but ``and.'' ``A Turn in the South'' is a treasury of ``ands'' - whether merely additive, or consequential, or expressive of suppressed surprise or incredulity.

Coming at the end of a series, ``and'' can express years and regrets. In his short, unhappy interview with the black president of the Atlanta City Council (the context is the realization that blacks had secured political but not economic power), Naipaul writes: ``An athletic scholarship helped him break out; he thought of all those who couldn't get such scholarships. And little had changed.''

But much had changed. As Naipaul is constantly being reminded by Southern whites, the South did lose the Civil War. The rise of modern Southern conservatism goes back to the bitterness over being beaten. Naipaul finds both Southern whites and blacks to be colonial peoples. He visits Bob McDill, author of the popular country music hit ``Good Ole Boys like Me.'' The refrain is: ``I guess we're all gonna be what we're gonna be./ So what do you do with good ole boys like me?''

In one of his strenuous acts of sympathy, Naipaul explains: ``A `good ole boy' ... was a redneck; but it was also a more general word for an old Southerner, someone made by the old ways. The song might seem ironical, then celebratory. But below that it is an elegy for the South, old history and myth, old community, old faith.''

Naipaul's neutrality is variously qualified on his turn through the South. In the end, there's a realization that goes beyond literature and will surely attract his political critics. Ann Siddon, a white writer, had said of the blacks, ``I tend to think that they have enriched us more than we have enriched them. Perhaps we do on some deep level realize how very similar we are.'' For some, ``A Turn in the South'' will occasion this realization. For others it will seem like a cop-out. Having long stared into the void that is Naipaul's South, he seems almost not to care.

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