Posted by: Jeanie F | August 4, 2010

Paris Trout by Pete Dexter

I first read Paris Trout in the late 1980s when it was originally released. Because it isn’t a current title, I was surprised to find that it was the August selection for the Laguna Beach Books book club. I’ve never been able to attend the LBB book club, but one of the real pleasures of retirement is having the time to explore some new things, and this is high on my list. I already belong to my beloved Literary Lite Book Club – we’ve been reading together for nearly 15 years – but I’m curious to see what a book club led by professionals is like.

The first surprise I had on beginning Paris Trout was that I remembered NOTHING about it. It was really like reading it for the first time, which is unfortunate because I was hoping to be able to compare this reading with my original one. I’m not sure how my impressions twenty years ago might have been different, but this book made a strong impression on me this time around.

Dexter has created a creepy and seriously flawed universe in Cotton Point, Georgia. Beginning with a horrific opener in which little Rosie Sayers is bitten by a rabid fox, things go steadily downhill. Rosie’s mother, a prostitute, gives Rosie away to one of her  paying customers, saying that Rosie, “You wasn’t born of love. You was the child of Satan.” Needless to say, Rosie is one of the few real innocents in this story. If there is a message to be learned in Paris Trout it may be that innocence is its own punishment. None of the “good guys” come out unscathed.

The central character is Paris himself, and there are few fictional characters more morally compromised than he. In modern vernacular we might consider him a sociopath, but the townspeople of Cotton Point don’t go in for psychological jargon. They just know that it’s better not to mess with Paris, and most stay as far away from him as he can. What makes this difficult for them, but interesting in a literary sense, is that Paris is one of the major business owners in town. He runs a general store and is a money-lender on the side. Much of his business is done with the black community, who have few options other than to deal with Paris if they need money. And, as Paris is quick to tell them, “Onct you made a deal with me, I get my money.” It is this ironclad promise that results in the shooting of Rosie Sayers and her adoptive mother, Mary McNutt.

There is not a single redeeming quality in Paris Trout, and everyone who comes in contact with him seems to pay the price. What Dexter has done, however, is to avoid saccharine protagonists to pit against Trout. With the exceptions of Rosie and her adoptive mother, Mary McNutt, everyone else in this small town is tainted in some way. Harry Seagraves, the attorney who represents Trout in his murder trial, coldly calculates his business advantage even as he is personally revolted by Trout. The judicial system allows Trout to delay serving the sentence meted out to him, finally allowing him to escape punishment  through bribery. Trout’s wife, Hanna, although physically, mentally, and sexually abused by her husband, seems drawn to him till the bitter end.

Against this background plays a continuous tone of both covert and overt racism. In Deborah Mason’s review of Paris Trout for the New York Times, she point out that “At a time when virulent racial incidents can no longer be conveniently fenced off in small Southern towns, Mr. Dexter’s great accomplishment is to remind us, with lucidity and stinging frankness, the lengths to which we will go to deny our own racism and to reassure ourselves that we are innocent.”  It is ironic that Trout, in his undisguised disdain for everyone, may be the least prejudiced man in town. He is an equal opportunity hater.

There are no happy endings in this dark and disturbing story, but I wouldn’t warn readers to steer clear. This is a compelling book – one that, once started, you’ll read straight through to the end.

Grade: A

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