Friday, January 11, 2008

Paris Trout


Our book today is Pete Dexter's 1988 novel Paris Trout, as brutal and vivid a piece of Southern fiction as only one of America's greatest writers could produce. It's a dark and sordid tale of mania and murder, as you'd expect from this particular sub-genre.

It's an odd self-genre, one in which we here at Stevereads have always enjoyed but never understood. Its darkness, its weird obsessions, its reflexive fetishization of mania, its sweaty violence ... the whole sub-genre seems revel in the culture of Southern self-hatred, which is a damn odd place for a sub-genre to be born.

Still, we can't argue with results. With the notable exception of William Faulkner, virtually every writer of 'Southern fiction' (be they themselves from the South or not) has displayed startling, gorgeous abilities.

Those abilities are on full display in Paris Trout, a story that begins with the eponymous main character - as thoroughgoing and hissable a villain as anything you'll find in Dickens or Shakespeare, a petty, usurious bigot of unrepentant vileness - shooting a little Black girl, Rosie Sayers, during a violent attempt to repossess a car.

Even though this is small-town Georgia, and even though Paris Trout is a prominent local businessman, the shooting of a little girl quickly becomes something nobody in town can ignore.

The town's celebrated lawyer, Harry Seagraves (a vain local celebrity who's had babies named after him), has had Paris Trout as his client for years, and he senses immediately the trouble in store for both of them:

Paris Trout will refuse to see it, that it was wrong to shoot a girl and a woman. There was a contract he'd made with himself a long time ago that overrode the law, and being the only interested party, he lived by it. He was principled in the truest way. His right and wrong were completely private. Harry Seagraves had been around the law long enough to hold a certain affection for those who did not respect it, but his affection, as a rule, was in proportion to the distance they kept from his practice. A man like Paris Trout could rub his right and wrong up against the written law for ten minutes and occupy half a year of Harry Seagraves's time straightening it out.

Paris Trout himself is invulnerable to the kind of introspection the killing of a little girl might invoke in other people, and by a weird process of transference, it's hapless Harry Seagraves who's put through all the costs of what Paris Trout did. When he goes to the hospital to check on the progress of Rosie Sayers, he and the doctor interrupt a sleeping orderly who's failed to notice something very important:

Seagraves said, 'I never asked to see this.' Braver took off his glasses again and cleaned them against the corner of his coat. He put them back on and then pulled the sheet back over the girl. It fell half across her still, narrow face, covering half her mouth, part of her cheek. It fell like the first shovel of dirt. Seagraves felt a panic loose somewhere inside himself. 'All I asked for was a prognosis, Dr. Braver,' he said, and the sound of his own voice quieted the feeling. Braver looked at the orderly, who still hadn't washed himself of sleep. 'The orderly here excepted, Mr. Seagraves, I believe that you will find an agreement among the medical community that Miss Rosie Sayers is dead.' He pulled up the edge of the sheet and dropped it over the rest of her face, covering everything but the fuzz on top of her head.

The interplay of images in that little passage - the delicate counterbalance between the edge of the doctor's coat and the edge of the winding-sheet, the gruesome tenderness the prose shows towards the little body at the center of the scene - is so finely done as to become invisible. Likewise the pretty little turns the narrative takes on every page. Dexter has a seamy story to tell, but he has a beautiful way with the English language just the same:

The clinic sat across the street from the campus of Georgia Officer Academy, and the girl saw soldier boys in their uniforms over there, some of them younger than herself, hurrying to cross directions into the gray buildings. It seemed to her that the soldier boys were always hurrying - that the same time that belonged to white people crawled all over them. She thought she would rather not know anything about time than have it crawling all over her.

Pete Dexter has written many strong novels (Train, for instance, is as penetrating an examination of racism as American literature has fielded in many decades), but Paris Trout to our mind stands out as very likely the best novel he's ever written - and one of the best novels American literature has produced in the 20th century. We whole-heartedly recommend it to all of you.

45 comments:

sam said...

I heartily concur about both books praised here (although I think I may actually like "Train" more, because it's not quite so unremittingly bleak as "Paris Trout".

steve said...

Question for all: what's the MOST 'unremittingly bleak' work of literature you've ever read?

Sam said...

I'm still pondering the ultimate answer, but I re-read Dos Passos' 'USA' recently, and MAN, it's brutal stuff, particularly the last two-thirds of the trilogy.

JEaton said...

Unremittingly bleak is pretty easy: The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Man oh man is that thing relentless.

brian said...

Steve,

Not a big fan of Faulkner?

brian said...

The bleakest thing I've ever read was probably 'Blood Meridian'. Not one glimmer of hope shines through.

'On the Beach' is about as bleak as it can get, I would imagine.

JEaton said...

I also read Blood Meridian this year (another Cormack McCarthy for those out of the loop) and, seriously, The Road is even worse. Blood Meridian at least had a historical setting, so if you need to emotionally retreat from it you can possibly confine its evils ways to a long dead past.

The Road is a What If? kind of future that inspires actual fear and bad dreams. Really.

Gianni said...

The Road by McCarthy is definitely the bleakest book I've read, though Battle Royale by Takami and The Beach by Garland are up there for me too.

Sam said...

But 'The Beach' is only bleak (or violent) at the end and very very beginning--in between it's a rawesome idyll, dude. And then the very end is cheerful, too. And anyhow, I was largely happy when the doomed kids met their jsut desserts.

brian said...

I've read 'The Road' too, but there was actually a flicker of hope there at the end, at least in my opinion. Even if that flicker meant the son would just continue.

Gianni said...

Regardless, I'd love to read this book, sounds like something I can really sink my teeth into.

JEaton said...

You're right, the last 2 pages of The Road were out of character from the rest of the book, but that was just hope by comparison. If those 2 pages were transported to any other book they would appear soul-crushingly depressing, summed up by the word, "Ugh."

Most of the brainless miscreants in Blood Meridian appear to be having a good time killing everything in sight. Because you're reading it from the point of view of the perpetrators, there is at least a sense of invincibility. It's grim, but your perspective is that of the fearless supermen. In The Road you are pretty much hung out to dry. He keeps you right on the edge of not being able to believe anyone could withstand that much despair.

Linda said...

"Question for all: what's the MOST 'unremittingly bleak' work of literature you've ever read?"

Keeping within the Southern fiction genre -- the bleakest I've read is "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Couldn't stand the book nor movie.

Most recent, delightful, not-to-be-missed Southern fiction book -- "Dancing Backward in Paradise" by Vera Jane Cook. Colorful characters whom I feel I know, since I've wondered about them even after I finished the book. It's set in Tennessee and Manhattan in the 60's and has humor, mystery and tragedy combined.

Cheers,
Linda

steve said...

I agree with Brian - 'The Road' holds out at least some kind of hope: the son finds some fellow 'keepers of the light' in a world now conspicuously lacking them. 'Blood Meridian' doesn't even have that.

For me, the prize would have to go to Margaret Edson's play ';wit' - smart woman gets cancer, spends two hours deteriorating in health until she's a bawling, pain-wracked fetus, and then finally dies. In fact, now that I think about it, the Mike Nichols movie adaptation (featuring a stunning performance by Emma Thompson and a really great small appearance by Eileen Atkins) might be even worse; in the play, there's a hint of the faint possibility of an afterlife - in the movie, even that is gone.

steve said...

I agree with Brian - 'The Road' holds out at least some kind of hope: the son finds some fellow 'keepers of the light' in a world now conspicuously lacking them. 'Blood Meridian' doesn't even have that.

For me, the prize would have to go to Margaret Edson's play ';wit' - smart woman gets cancer, spends two hours deteriorating in health until she's a bawling, pain-wracked fetus, and then finally dies. In fact, now that I think about it, the Mike Nichols movie adaptation (featuring a stunning performance by Emma Thompson and a really great small appearance by Eileen Atkins) might be even worse; in the play, there's a hint of the faint possibility of an afterlife - in the movie, even that is gone.

steve said...

OK, let's try this: what's the single most JOYFUL work of literature you've ever read? Or even the single most joyful MOMENT in a work of literature?

brian said...

Thanks Steve.

I recall 'Blood Meridian' ending with a character, one we've followed the entire story, murdered in an outhouse. That's pretty bleak.

"What's the single most JOYFUL work of literature you've ever read?" --That's a tough one. 'The Sweet Hereafter'? Nah, probably something like 'Tom Sawyer'.

Kevin Caron said...

Huh. The 'bleak' question is easier to answer (1984? Acme Novelty Library?). Drawing a blank on the 'joyful'.

Actually, I think it would have to be "Happy Birthday, Jeffy!", a rollicking tale of birthday cake, clown shows and pony rides.

JEaton said...

Oooh. Kevin is good. It really is my birthday today. Happy 32 for me!

Thanks, Kev!

steve said...

32????

Gawd, I hope I DIE before I get that old!

JEaton said...

That can be arranged . . . .

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