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 c