Sunday, September 19, 2010

Paris Trout: A Ridiculous Name For Deadly Serious Man

There is something about the American South that makes it a space all its own in the literary world. Not many specific geographies in the world can lay claim to such a boast and certainly not many in the US. Indeed, the South seems to be its own breeding ground for the written word. Faulkner is known as the quintessential ‘Southern’ writer yet no one refers to Steinbeck as the ‘Californian’ writer or to Bellow as the “New York” writer even though place and setting are arguably as integral to their writing as Faulkner’s.

But by way of that lengthy and somewhat tangential lead-in, the latest of these Southern tales that I read was Paris Trout by Pete Dexter. Dexter is no Faulkner. He is what people like me imagine Faulkner should be. He is a deliberate and powerful writer who doesn’t always write nice things. But he writes truth. And that is not something you don’t find in so many books these days.

I’ve had this book for several years and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. Simply reading the dust jacket, adorned with praise such as “…masterpiece…”, “…breathtaking…” the winner of national book award should have been incentive enough to crack the spine. But when I finally did I was rewarded with a haunting and powerful novel that made a deep impression.

Dexter is an economical writer. The text is just 306 pages and it’s a small book, less than 300 words per page. It doesn’t take long to get through and it’s difficult to put it down once you start. But what Dexter does with these few leaves of paper is impressive. It ranks among the best work of ‘Southern Fiction’ I’ve ever read. And unlike Faulkner you won’t be bored to tears by the prose after 50 pages.

The eponymous main character of this book, Paris Trout, is an insane loan shark in a rural Georgia town. Dexter has created a monster and he just might be the most awful character I’ve found in a book in many years. He is truly a rotten person and he does rotten things. But the haunting sparseness of Dexter’s narrative makes Trout’s actions even worse. There is power in the plainness of his voice that makes this book penetrating on a very deep physiological level.

Trout murders a young black girl in 1950’s small town Georgia and shoots another woman over a fender bender and missing car payments. He is then put on trial and judged by a group of his peers. The account of what follows captures everything that was, and perhaps still is, awful about the segregation South.

There is no redemption; only ugly reality. One of the other principal characters in Dexter’s dark ride down Jim Crow lane is his powerful white attorney, Harry Seagraves. He is no Atticus Finch and this story has nothing resembling the warmth of To Kill A Mocking Bird. In this small town tale there are few threads of decency and we’re made accurately aware of this as we see a series of inexcusable involving Trout's estranged wife Lucy.

Dexter does a masterful job unfolding this story through actions and impressions of these three principal characters. In fact, he does such a terrific job of building up the characters and conflict in the first half of the book that the final resolution is somewhat of a letdown. Nonetheless, this book is poignant, moving, unforgiving, and at times unpleasant. And it’s also completely mesmerizing. Without a doubt one of the most impressive bits of fiction about early the early 20th century South that you will find.

9.0 out of 10

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