Adultery, murder and madness drive Dexter’s brilliant ‘Paris Trout’

September 5, 2012

Some years ago, I read The Paperboy, Pete Dexter’s 1995 story about small-town newspaper reporters investigating an unsavory death row inmate who may have been framed for murder. I thought it was a  wonderful book, but I did not seek out any other work by Dexter. 

That changed the other week, when I picked up the American writer’s 1988 novel, Paris Trout. It takes place sometime around 1960 in the small (and fictitious, I believe) Georgia town of Cotton Point.

Many of the denizens of Cotton Point live unhappy lives. In some cases, accidents of birth and race limit their potential; others have made poor choices, while a few suffer simply because of circumstances beyond human control.

The man at the heart of the tale is the bizarrely named Paris Trout, a penny-pinching store owner who has built his fortune by loaning money to black people, whom he despises. Trout isn’t merely racist, however; he is a full-blown misanthrope who sees little value in anyone other than himself.

Trout commits a terrible crime near the beginning of the book, motivated only, it seems, by sheer meanness. His victims are black females whom he encounters when he goes to collect on an unpaid loan. One dies.

Trout’s defense attorney, political macher (to use a Yiddish word) Harry Seagraves, is uneasy about his client, whom he knows to be a difficult man. Trout can’t believe he will be prosecuted; he maintains a perpetual air of disbelief and outrage as the case slowly proceeds through the justice system.

Like Seagraves, almost everyone in Cotton Point would like to forget Trout’s crime. The key exception is a prosecutor, who eventually wins other town residents to his side. His best efforts, however, aren’t nearly enough to uphold any real ideal of justice.

As the case crawls along, Trout brutalizes his wife, Hanna Nile Trout, whom he has never trusted. When Hanna seeks a divorce, a casual referral by Trout ensnares young attorney Carl Bonner in Trout’s web. The two lawyers and the three wives will all be adversely affected by Trout and his dark behavior by the time the book ends.

Except for Trout himself, who seems to determined to conduct himself in a hard-hearted and self-interested manner, all the key characters seem to be trapped by circumstance. Seagraves can’t refuse Trout as a client and maintain his own standing in the community; Bonner can’t yield in the divorce case for similar reasons. One of the attorneys is married to a frigid woman, while the other finds himself embarrassed by his wife’s advances. In most cases, the characters seem determined to wait until problems resolve themselves.

Although only a small part of the book directly involves black characters, Paris Trout does a masterful job of portraying just how powerless they were in a society that white people — white men in particular — dominated in so many ways. And yet Dexter has an eye for the many small details that define the lives of all the characters, white or black, privileged or not.

When I started reading Paris Trout, I wanted to know what was going to happen. As I continued, my foremost question became, Who are these people? In this book, Dexter does such a masterful job revealing the answers that I wanted to go deeper and deeper into the book, even as it peered into darkness and corruption.

Paris Trout won the 1988 National Book Award for fiction. It’s easy to see why. I’m glad I read this book, and I’m sorry it took me so many years to read my second Pete Dexter novel.

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