"Paris Trout" by Pete Dexter

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Pete Dexter’s justly renowned Paris Trout traces the inexorable decline of its eponymous character, and the few citizens of Cotton Point, Georgia, whom he takes with him. Dexter delivers his grisly, unfortunate story in robust language, making clear his central characters’ lack of choice, or their delusions, or their destructive impulses. Dexter’s greatest achievement in this book is the inevitability if its climax, and yet he  manages to surprise us anyway. Typical of Dexter, this book boasts plain, strong language, an unflinching gaze at human failing, a pace that never lets up, and the overall impression that we are in the hands of a master. It’s unforgettable.

It’s the 1950s, and Paris Trout is a local businessman who has been active in a small Georgia town for decades. He runs a small general store, deals in used cars, and lends money out at interest, serving the town’s Negro population as well as its white people. He manages his interests in an unorthodox manner, not being one to write anything down, including books of account. He retains all transactions and balances in his head, for he has a powerful, capacious mind.

He also has a deadly, unswerving focus on his own interests, and this focus leads him to nefarious activities, the worst of which results in the fatal shooting of a 14 year-old Negro girl in her home. His trial on this charge constitutes a good portion of the book, and is the central trigger for the acceleration of his downward spiral.

We only get to follow Paris’s reasoning, such as it is, at a remove. We are much closer to the other characters in the book, his wife Hanna, Harry Seagraves, his attorney, and Carl Bonner, a lawyer who arrives halfway through the narrative, and represents Hanna in divorce proceedings against Trout. The mental and emotion journeys these people take in the wake of Paris Trout’s deeds and misdeeds show Dexter’s superior ability with the human mind and heart.

Take this up. It’s an important work of American fiction from the last century, and it showcases the astonishing ability of its celebrated author.



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