Pete Dexter is best known as the author of six acclaimed novels, including PARIS, TROUT, which received a National Book Award. His most recent novel, TRAIN, came out in 2003. But, like many writers before him, Dexter honed his craft as a newspaperman and journalist.
PAPER TRAILS is a collection of his newspaper writings from the 1970s to the 1990s. During this time he worked as a columnist for the Philadelphia News and Sacramento Bee. In this book, readers can find the same sharp eye for detail, dialogue and storytelling that make his novels so memorable.
The big city columnist has traditionally been the home run hitter of the newspaper world. The columnist is the star of the newsroom, the only reporter who can write whatever he wants and do it in the first person.
In 1963, Jimmy Breslin revolutionized and reinvented the column for the New York Herald-Tribune. Breslin brought the skills of a brilliant storyteller to page 2. He wrote about the small guy, the underdog and the forgotten. His columns captured the rhythms of speech of real people in the street and bars.
And across town on South Street at the same time, Pete Hamill was banging out columns for the old New York Post. Hamill's columns were filled with passion and heart. His sentences were as lean and tough as a boxer's right hand on a good night. In Chicago, Mike Royko dominated the newsroom. And you could find Herb Caan working the streets of San Francisco. It was a good time for reading newspapers.
By 1974, Pete Dexter arrived in Philadelphia and joined the exclusive fraternity of columnists. And in PAPER TRAIL, you see that he quickly displayed all the tools needed to be a great writer and darn good columnist. It's not easy to tell a fully-developed story in 750-800 words on immutable deadlines, but he does it here over and over again. Dexter is able to tell poignant tales full of local color and dialogue, often with a twist at the end.
Dexter's writing is simple and powerful. Consider how he starts this column about a prostitute. "The rent is $95 a week, and Jolene still owes the manager fifty. None of the regulars have called, so it is time to go to work."
Dexter writes with a hilarious dry wit and can toss off one-liners with the best of them. And he writes with underlining warmth, if somewhat sardonically, about his wife and family.
But there is something else going on in these columns that make them cumulatively as powerful as any novel. The first column in the book is a simple slice of life. Dexter observes a hawk that swoops down and steals a kitten from its mother, a stray cat in his neighborhood. He writes:
"As he moved, his shadow crossed the cat and she cringed, and that is what he would lie awake thinking about that night, and the next… The man had lost things that had mattered before, and he knew what it was to cringe at sudden shadows, the ones that just drop on you out of the sky."
That sets the tone for the collection. By the late 1970s and early 1980s the optimism of the 1960s was long gone, the cities were in rapid decline and the surge of drugs like crack was making the mean streets even meaner. Dexter did what reporters always do: he walked alone with a notebook and pen into those dangerous streets and told the truth about what he saw.
Consider this lead: "The woman was sitting in a corner of the emergency room at Parkland Hospital in Dallas --- the same place they had taken John Kennedy. It had been too late for him; it was too late for her… It was early afternoon now, she had been there for a couple of hours at least. The blood on her skirt and shoes had dried black, her wrist and hand were bandaged, and she was sitting alone, waiting for the doctor to come out and tell her what she already knew about her husband…"
That's the sort of work they can't teach in journalism school. By the time Dexter was writing, the days of colorful losers and characters out of Damon Runyon were long gone. A sister tells him about her recently deceased brother who spent his entire life as a barroom brawler and braggart --- a man who was always getting into minor and stupid scrapes with the law.
"I loved my brother deeply, but he was never anything but a fool. And no matter what kind of stories they tell down at the bar, when my brother died, he didn't have any friends."
The most chilling sentence Dexter writes in PAPER TRAILS is the simple one on page 226. This is the column where he says goodbye to Philadelphia and the column at the News: "One night I almost watched myself die." In 1981, Dexter was attacked by 30 men with baseball bats and severely beaten after writing a column about a botched drug deal. Dexter doesn't tell that story in this book. He doesn't have to. The reporter doesn't become the story. That's the rule.
PAPER TRAILS is an indispensable book for anybody interested in journalism or reading a great American writer. It is a chronicle of our times. Dexter is not afraid to shine a light on the dark side of the American Dream, about the devastating violence that is never far from the surface of American life. And that fearlessness is supposed to be what journalism is about, even in these days of cautious corporate media. PAPER TRAILS is as good as journalism can get.
Reviewed by Tom Callahan on January 14, 2011
Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage