Peter Dexter’s third novel, winner of the National Book Award for fiction, deals with the violent chain of events set off by the fatal shooting of a black girl by a white man, but it is less concerned with racial relations than with the effect of the event on the white community of Cotton Point, Georgia. Because he represents an older way of looking at the two races, Paris Trout is unable to conceive that he has made a mistake, much less that he has done anything morally wrong, and the consequences of his attitude are thoroughly destructive for him and for those who come in contact with him.
The chain of events begins with Trout’s selling a used car to a young black man, whose mother has kindly taken in Rosie Sayers when Rosie’s mother threw her out. Trout warns the young man, Henry Ray Boxer, that he must be paid in regular installments, come what may, and the young man agrees, but when the car is damaged by a negligent truck driver the young man demands that the insurance he pays for be used to fix the damage. Trout refuses, and Henry Ray returns the car and stops paying. Trout’s reaction is to visit Mary McNutt’s house in the black section with Buster Devonne, a former policeman who had been dismissed because of his brutal treatment of blacks. Henry Ray is not there, but Trout tries to get his younger brother to sign a paper accepting liability. When the boy refuses, Trout shakes him. Mary arrives and tries to intervene, but Trout chases her and Rosie, an observer, into the house. He beats Mary and eventually shoots each of the women several times. Two days later, Rosie dies.
Dexter uses this violent event to examine the web of relationships in a small Southern town. Because changes are taking place, a white man can no longer simply shoot blacks with impunity. It is unlikely in the extreme that Trout will suffer any great punishment; as his attorney, however, Harry Seagraves recognizes the new order and tries to get Trout to recognize that he will stand trial and that the jury may find him guilty. Trout’s response is truculent and assured: “What they gone do, arrest me for collecting legal debts? I told that boy when he took the car, I get my money.” Reminded that he had not shot the person who owed him money, he responds that they were members of the same family. Told that Rosie was not, he answers, “Ain’t a jury in the state that could expect a white man to keep track of family lines amongst the dark aspect.”
Part of the interest in Paris Trout is its depiction of Trout’s deterioration. Arrested, released on his own recognizance but bound over for trial, he believes that he is innocent of any crime, and he expects Seagraves to see that the jury agrees. That is, after all, what he pays Seagraves for. At the same time, Trout’s behavior becomes more and more irrational. He has always mistreated Hanna, his wife; he used her sexually without regard for her feelings, and he forced her to work long hours in his store without pay. Now he abuses her physically and sexually. At one point, he comes close to drowning her in her bathtub.
At another time, while Seagraves is in the house, Trout litters the kitchen floor with the contents of the refrigerator and the kitchen cupboards; when Hanna stumbles in the mess and cuts her toes badly on broken glass, it is Seagraves who must call the doctor to come and treat her before she bleeds to death. Trout puts a steel plate beneath his mattress so that he cannot be shot through the floor from the room beneath, and he installs glass plates to cover the floor of his room so that he will know if anyone has been in during his absence. When Hanna finally forces him to leave the house, he moves these defenses with him to a hotel. Trout maintains an appearance of rationality, keeping up his business and for a while forcing Hanna to stay with him. Only Seagraves recognizes his madness, and even Seagraves is not aware of its dimensions until he becomes Hanna’s lover.
This affair is only one of the complications of life in Cotton Point in the aftermath of the shooting. The prosecutor, Ward Townes, is determined to go ahead with the trial despite the resentment he will incur by doing so. The chief of police tries not to offend Trout or Seagraves. Hanna, who had been a successful educator and administrator before taking the gamble of a late marriage to Trout, begins to fight back against her husband, defying him by going to Rosie’s funeral, refusing to sit in the courtroom during his trial, and finally forcing him to move out by making him believe that she is poisoning him.
When the trial comes, Seagraves does his best for Trout, although he stops short of bringing his political influence to bear directly on the jury. During the trial, Trout’s lies and those of Devonne pale before the...
(The entire section is 1968 words.)