My copy of Paris Trout came from the Book Nook, a magical place with 2 locations dangerously close to my haunts in Atlanta. Really, it takes me an extra fifteen or twenty minutes out of my way to anywhere I normally go when in my hometown. I don't care about this, however. The place has dollar book bins, half-priced paperbacks, a solid true crime section and even a dollar-or-less table in Decatur. I believe I found Paris Trout in a bin of novels outside the store on Roswell Road, and it cost whatever half of $3.99 is (I never had time to learn math, what with all this reading, but I'm pretty sure that's around two dollars. Plus tax.).
This set of circumstances often leads us to an author whose books reach the used-bookstore commerce stream on a fairly regular basis, but who isn't displayed prominently at Barnes & Noble. I'd never heard of Pete Dexter in my life, and it seemed I should have. His National Book Award winning novel, Paris Trout, involves a small-town murder and takes place in my home state. Later I discovered a couple of his detective novels in the regular fiction section at the Book Nook, but I tested the waters with Paris Trout first, and remain happy I did.
Bleak in spirit and richly atmospheric, the novel, set in 1949, centers around a small-town Georgia shopkeeper named Paris Trout who murders a black child over a debt. Trout is a staunch racist who doesn't consider his actions criminal, and the characters followed throughout the novel hold varying views on whether the status of his victim will keep him from paying for taking a life. Dexter enters the minds of various characters to tell the story of the murder and subsequent trial, including the sheriff, his wife and Trout himself. This all takes place against the hot and dusty yet chilling background of a place where the old order shows no signs of budging, and where the morality we know in the post-civil rights era has only just emerged at the edges of some characters' consciousness. It's easy to see why this novel won the National Book Award in 1988; it displays the mid-century South's flaws without parodying or judging them, plugging forward with a realism that never quite sacrifices empathy for every player in the small-town drama.
As aforementioned, after loving me some Trout I came across two of Dexter's novels in the mystery section. The first, The Paperboy, turned out as a huge disappointment. Like I told Dennis Lehane, I don't care much for entrées into the lives of investigators, which if used too extensively can lead to total distraction from the crime at hand. Paperboy includes a great central killing rich with narrative potential: a much-maligned sheriff run over by his own squad car. Yesss. Much to my disappointment, the main character's newspaper reporter brother and said brother's hippie story partner soon become the (very boring) focus of the story. This along with the main character's frustrating self-pity and his retired father's tiresome bitterness dragged the novel down too much for me to continue. After the requisite I've-tried-it dozens of pages with no mention of the murder, I had to give up and cleanse my palette with a guaranteed fast-paced mystery: another Henning Mankell.
I kept faith after the failure of The Paperboy to capture my interest and picked up God's Pocket this past week. It's not really a mystery, but it does center around the murder, much the way that Paris Trout does. The setting is the title gritty neighborhood South Philadelphia in the 1980s, and the victim dies on a construction site. We, the reader, know the truth, but much of the neighborhood doesn't. Dexter again enters the consciousness of different characters as the story progresses, including a depressed newspaper columnist (I adore the fact that Dexter, a former newspaper columnist himself, provides a sort of requiem for their printed form as journalism changes its face these days) and the middleweight gangster stepfather of the deceased.
God's Pocket, while it doesn't rise to the literary level of Paris Trout, maintains a strong element of suspense, only dragging occasionally when Dexter indulges too much in painting his alter ego. As in Paris Trout, the author's ability to convey a strong sense of place and community, and to explore racial and generational divides and their effect upon violent tragedy with stark honesty, gives this this novel literary weight despite its fast pace. Up next on my Pete Dexter list is Paper Trails, a collection of his newspaper columns published in 2007. I can't wait to read more of his novels, too, but I should wait for another student loan check to arrive before buying them. Knowing me, though, I probably won't.