Thursday, May 17, 2018

Review of Paris Trout by Pete Dexter (Penguin, 1988)

Cotton Point, Georgia, just after the Second World War. Paris Trout and his hired muscle shoots a black woman and a fourteen year old girl. The latter dies a few days later. Trout admits the killing, but argues that he had every right as he was collecting a debt from her brother and she was fleeing instead of cooperating. His colleague, a former policeman, argues she was armed. Trout is well-known in the town, running the local store and also an informal bank for black families. In a place where racism is endemic and Jim Crow antics common he is bemused as to why such a fuss is being made over the death of a black girl and cannot understand why the case is heading for court. As the case unfolds he becomes increasingly paranoid, accusing his wife of poisoning him, and his lawyer of conducting a shoddy defence. Used to getting his way, he’s not going to let the law and shifting social relations stand in his way.

Paris Trout is social drama built around the murder of a black girl in a small Georgia town just after the end of the Second World War. The hook is that Trout, a white shopkeeper and loan shark, does not deny the killing and has no sense of guilt or shame. To him the girl’s death is entirely her own fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and acting in a way to provoke his violence. He is genuinely mystified as to why the case is heading to court and fully expects proceedings to be halted or to win. Dexter tells the tale from a handful of perspectives: Paris Trout, Rosie Sayers (the girl that is killed), Harry Seagraves (Trout’s lawyer), Hanna Trout (the wife), and Carl Bonner (Hanna’s lawyer). Seagraves, Hanna and Bonner are all repulsed by Trout but are ensnared in his evolving madness. Trout is a hideous figure, a caricature of Jim Crow, and Dexter uses the shifting perceptions of Trout to explore the inherent racism and social norms of a society divided by race and class. There are no great surprises or twists, rather the story acts as a morality play, sliding to a somewhat inevitable end. It’s an interesting, if somewhat flat read, that peters out a bit of the end. More problematically, the black family disappears entirely, as does the black community of Cotton Point, from the trial onwards – it’s telling and troubling omission; written out of the fiction of a terrible crime committed against them. 

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