What he took from these models, which were literary rather than journalistic, was a belief in elaborately stylized prose and deep-dish subjectivity. Not so different, you might say, from the New Journalists who were just then hitting their stride—especially the other Tom Wolfe, who had long since knocked down the Chinese wall between himself and what he was describing. But Murray went further, and made up his own rules. You argued with others but primarily with yourself. You observed the world with finicky accuracy but then transformed it into art. And the cartwheeling, conversational tone of his sentences was his alone, as were the onrushing rhythms and the pungent, hyphenated adjectives marching along in single file—or more often sprinting.

* * *

In the initial chapters of South to a Very Old Place, these qualities are something of a mixed blessing. Murray’s musings are comical and attractively cantankerous, yet they seem to exist in a vacuum—in the sealed chamber of his own sensibility. He can’t stop ruminating, arguing, saddling up one hobbyhorse after another: house slaves, sociology, tokenism, black matriarchy, protest fiction. The reader becomes increasingly desperate for some hard evidence that Murray has actually left his apartment on Lenox Terrace.

In the second half of the book, however, something marvelous happens: The outside world finally gets equal billing. Perhaps Murray sensed the need to dilute his argumentation with some sinus-clearing actuality. It also seems likely that his personal connection to Tuskegee and Mobile (where he grew up) made him more impressionable and open to his surroundings. In any case, while en route to Tuskegee, Murray is overwhelmed by memories. He recalls his first Greyhound bus ride to the college, the songs that were playing on the radio that summer, and “the whiteness of academic columns as you saw them through the flat preautumnal greenness of the elms lining Campus Avenue.”

Some of these memories, oddly enough, are ascribed to other Tuskegee students of the era, as if Murray can creep out of his solipsistic shell only by degrees. And some have a collegiate friskiness to them, which seems only appropriate. Here, for example, Murray runs down the faculty roster, culminating in that agricultural wizard George Washington Carver, who was then so old that Henry Ford would soon pay to have an elevator installed in Carver’s Tuskegee lodgings:

They all will remember W. Henri Payne with his brownskin Frenchman’s moustache whether they took French or not that year. They will remember Alphonse Henningburg and his beautiful wife. Nor will anybody have forgotten that the only way to repeat anything Dr. Carver said was to imitate him in as high a pitch as possible (adding precisely enunciated dirty words which would have horrified him: “They ask me: ‘Dr. Carver what makes rubber stretch?’ and I say to them quite frankly I don’t cop what the fuck makes that shit act up like that, I don’t dig no rubber-stretching shit. I dig peanuts, I dig potatoes.”)

It’s instructive to compare Murray’s Tuskegee interlude with the one V. S. Naipaul included almost 20 years later in A Turn in the South—after Murray himself prepped him for the visit! Naipaul’s account is careful and cumulative. He gets the facts, elicits testimony from a couple of locals, and as he explores the broiling interior of Tuskegee’s Dorothy Hall, notes that the “colors in the hot paneled club upstairs were like the colors of a gentlemen’s club.” The irony is unmistakable, but also quiet: a murmur. Whereas Murray is sweeping, breathless, atmospheric. He wants the feeling of the place, and the memories of it, and he wants to surprise himself in the act of remembering.

In Mobile, at last, he is really back home. There the Scott Paper Towel factory has gobbled up the landscape of his youth like a “storybook dragon disguised as a wide-sprawling, foul-smelling, smoke-chugging factory, a not really ugly mechanical monster now squatting along old Blackshear Mill Road.” There Murray wanders the streets and connects with half-remembered acquaintances. And there, for the first time in the book, other voices climb confidently into the driver’s seat.

James Marcus is the deputy editor of Harper’s Magazine. His next book, Glad to the Brink of Fear: A Portrait of Emerson in Eighteen Installments, will be published in 2015.