Awell-to-do though reclusive businessman in a Deep South town shoots a 14-year-old black girl dead. The savage deed becomes a test of conscience for the town's leading citizens, and of their courage or cowardice in confronting the social code they live by.
It sounds like something that could have been written by William Faulkner or Harper Lee 40 or 50 years ago. It takes place, in fact, just after World War II. The South, we know, has changed a lot since then.
Yet the fascination of Pete Dexter's "Paris Trout" entirely surmounts any sense of thematic or literary harking-back. The violence seems minted yesterday in Cotton Point, Ga.; so does the evil in a berserk human spirit; so does the capacity of that evil to set all the complacent unsoundness of a society resonating, and then to jar it to bits.
The freshness is not in the theme, which is a perpetual one, anyway. It is in the intensity and subtlety of Dexter's writing. His story moves us relentlessly and far too quickly to places we would rather not go, while making us marvel all the while at the dexterity and richness of the ride and leaving us unable to return.
In the person of Paris Trout, Dexter has created an authentic monster, unbelievable at first and then, bit by bit, compelling belief. He is a cold, solitary man who runs the town's general store and has made a modest fortune loan-sharking to the black community and buying up property.
One day, accompanied by a henchman who was fired from the local police for brutality, he drives to the house of Henry Ray Boxer, who had bought an old car from him on time. Boxer returned it after a truck hit it, and Trout refused to pay up the insurance he had made him buy. Boxer, in turn, refused to make payments.
Boxer isn't home. Trout pulls out a pistol and shoots Boxer's mother, Mary McNutt, and Rosie Sayers, mortally wounding her. A day or two later, Trout is arrested and immediately released on bail.
The arrest is made with reluctance; the prosecution is conducted conscientiously, but with reluctance. Eventually, Trout is convicted and sentenced, again with reluctance, to one to three years in the workhouse. After three years' delay, during which he writes his own appeals all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, he surrenders to the sheriff who drives him, still reluctantly, to the penitentiary in the next county.
Trout has paid out $20,000 in bribes, however, and a crooked county judge orders his release. The next day he is walking around Cotton Point free, though facing the prospect of a jail term at the hands of an intractable U.S. government, to which Trout had never consented to file a tax return.
That, except for the ending, is the story. Or rather, the plot. The plot is the wiring. The story is the fearful current that Dexter sends through it.
Trout is a primal evil, all will and no humanity. We think "Snopes"--and he could be a demented Snopes kinsman. His dementia grows steadily, even after the initial slaughter, and yet it is built on a kind of principle.
It is Seagraves, Trout's reasonable, even kindly defense lawyer, who first mentions the principle. "Paris Trout would refuse to see it," Seagraves thinks when the police notify him apologetically that they will have to arrest his client. "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."
To Trout, his action was perfectly justified. He had a contract; he had a right to enforce it. He is white and a somebody; Boxer is black, a nobody, and in default. The woman and the girl simply got in the way. They broke a rule; it was as if they'd jumped in front of a locomotive.
The fearful argument, the key to the story, is set out at the office of Towne, the prosecutor.
"If somebody got shot, they did it themselves," Trout insists.
"Miss Mary McNutt in that case shot herself . . . let's see, three times in the back?" Towne asks.
"Yessir," Trout replies.
"You cannot enter a person's house and shoot them dead," the prosecutor says. "And that's a dangerous rule to break too, sir. An eye for an eye."
"Those ain't the same kind of eyes and they ain't the same kind of rules," Trout says, smiling. "Those ain't the real rules and you know it."
Towne, who prosecutes successfully; Seagraves, who eventually abandons his client, and other influential figures in Cotton Point all abhor Trout's killings and want to see him put away. But his argument speaks to their weakness. He is, in fact, the Frankenstein monster nurtured by their whole way of life.
It is a way of life that rests halfway between the laws on the books and the unwritten law of favors, arrangements and the exercise by the powerful of a kind of feudal right over the poor and the blacks.