Saturday, May 23, 2009

Summer reading: "Paris Trout"

Took me 21 years to discover Pete Dexter's novel "Paris Trout." It won the National Book Award in 1988. The book is set in a small Georgia town in the 1950s and concerns a particularly heinous race-based murder, something on the order of the Emmett Till killing which Lewis Nordan translated so well into his novel "Wolf Whistle." I do like the work of those southern writers.

Dexter isn't exactly a southerner. He did spend a few years in Florida, but that was in the Yankee part of the state in Palm Beach County. He set his 1995 novel "Paperboy" in redneck north-central Florida along the St. John's River. This isn't far from where I lived in the late 1960s, the same era as the setting of "Paperboy." I'm now reading "Paperboy."

Dexter could live on an island in the Pacific Northwest for all I care. He does now. But he brought to life the fictional residents of Cotton Point in red-clay Georgia. That's all that really matters.

"Paris Trout" is a great novel. The title character operates a store and pawn shop in Cotton Point. He's a miser and a bully and a racist. He does have a soft spot for his old mother, though. Paris Trout's racism is so matter-of-fact that it might be hard for young people to understand, especially if they've never lived in the South. He and his thug friend, Buster Devonne, go to Damp Bottoms to collect a debt from Henry Ray Boxer, a young black man. When the family objects to Paris Trout's presence, Paris and Buster go on a shooting spree that leaves Henry Ray's mother wounded and a 14-year-old black girl dead.

Paris sees nothing wrong with his actions. That's the heart of the story. He lives by his own rules and that might be fine if the rules possessed any semblance of humanity.

I may have to read through all of Pete Dexter before my fever abates.


Joanne said...

I remember reading this when it first came out. I can't say I "enjoyed" it, but it's really well done.
What is it about the South that translates so well in literature? I love Southern writers, too.
A (relatively) recent favorite is Joshlyn Jackson's "Gods of Alabama."

Michael Shay said...

So many conflicts churning under the surface in the South. Perfect fodder for fiction writers.