Friday, January 11, 2008
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.