by Pete Dexter
Random House, 306 pp., $17.95
by Charlie Smith
Paris Review Editions, 367 pp., $17.95
As the South gives way to the Sunbelt, southern novelists are having to reckon with a steady erosion of the regional distinctiveness that formerly provided not only the surface but the main subject of their art. The softening of overt racial injustice and violence has been accompanied by increased racial separatism and the consequent loss of the old intimacies—deplorably unequal as they were—between black and white. Meanwhile, over the last thirty years, a vast population of blacks has been driven by the technology of modern agriculture from a rooted if impoverished existence on the land to a rootless and equally impoverished existence in the ghettos of Detroit, Chicago, and New York. Poor whites have moved from their dog-run shacks into rusting trailers, where they now get the old-time religion from television sets, while the first families of Charleston and Savannah have—eagerly or resignedly—surrendered their houses to a thriving tourist industry. The Atlanta airport, rivaled only by those of Chicago and Los Angeles in congestion, confusion, and inconvenience, presents a far more telling image of the contemporary South than the small-town courthouse, now air-conditioned, or the white-columned plantation house, now adjacent to a shopping mall or surrounded by oil rigs.
While some southern novelists—Walker Percy among them—have tried to deal head-on with this transformation, others have sought refuge, so to speak, in a vividly remembered past. It is symptomatic that both novels under review take place in the 1950s, the last decade of which it could be said that the South was substantially still the South. One of them, Paris Trout, is a southern novel written by a nonsoutherner. Although he was born in Michigan and has subsequently lived in—and written about—other parts of the country, Pete Dexter spent part of his boyhood in Georgia and has been able to re-create convincingly the mores of an era when blacks were still referred to (formally) as Negroes and when the notion that they deserved equal justice with whites in a court of law had barely begun to take root in the rural South.
We meet first a severely deprived and possibly retarded fourteen-year-old black girl, Roise Sayers, who, in the opening pages, is bitten on the leg by a rabid fox. We also meet a harsh-mannered white man in his sixties, Paris Trout, who keeps a general store and lends money to the local blacks in the small, central Georgia town of Cotton Point. In an attempt to collect payments that he is owed, Paris Trout, accompanied by an ex-policeman, enters the house where Rosie and her foster family live and, in a fit of lunatic rage, shoots the girl and the woman who tries to protect her. When the town’s leading lawyer, Harry Seagraves, hears of the shooting, he realizes that he will be asked to undertake the defense of Paris Trout. He accepts with some reluctance.
Paris Trout [Seagraves reflects] would refuse to see it, that it was wrong to shoot …