Big white ghetto

There is another Booneville, this one in northern Mississippi, just within the cultural orbit of Memphis and a stone’s throw from the two-room shack in which was born Elvis Presley, the Appalachian Adonis. There’s a lot of Big White Ghetto between them, trailers and rickety homes heated with wood stoves, the post-industrial ruins of old mills and small factories with their hard 1970s lines that always make me think of the name of the German musical group Einstürzende Neubauten — “collapsing modern buildings.” (Some things just sound more appropriate in German.) You swerve to miss deer on the country roads, see the rusted hulk of a 1937 Dodge sedan nestled against a house, and wonder if somebody was once planning to restore it—or if somebody just left it there on his way to Detroit. You see the clichés: cars up on cinder blocks, to be sure, but houses up on cinder blocks, too. And you get a sense of the enduring isolation of some of these little communities: About 20 miles from Williamsburg, Ky., I become suspicious that I have not selected the easiest route to get where I’m going, and stop and ask a woman what the easiest way to get to Williamsburg is. “You’re a hell of a long way from Virginia,” she answers. I tell her I’m looking for Williamsburg, Ky., and she says she’s never heard of it. It’s about the third town over, the nearest settlement of any interest, and it’s where you get on the interstate to go up to Lexington or down to Knoxville. “I went to Hazard once,” she offers. The local economic-development authorities say that the answer to Appalachia’s problems is sending more people to college. Sending them to Nashville might be a start.

Eventually, I find my road. You run out of Big White Ghetto pretty quickly, and soon you are among the splendid farms and tall straight trees of northern Mississippi. Appalachia pretty well fades away after Tupelo, and the Mississippi River begins to assert its cultural force. Memphis is only a half-hour’s drive away, but it feels like a different sort of civilization — another ghetto, but a ghetto of a different sort. And if you stand in front of the First Baptist Church on Beale Street and look over your shoulder back toward the mountains, you don’t see the ghost of Elvis or Devil Anse or Daniel Boone — you see a big sign that says “Wonder Bread,” cheap and white and empty and as good an epitaph as any for what remains left behind in those hills and hollows, waiting on the draw and trying not to think too hard about what the real odds are on the lotto or an early death.