In the tradition of literary heavy hitters Mark Twain, Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, Pete Dexter was a reporter before he turned to novels ("Paris Trout," "Train," "Deadwood") and screenplays ("Mulholland Falls," "Rush"), and while it's far too early to tell whether he'll score a permanent place in the literary firmament, he has proved in his post-journalism career to be one of America's finest and most unsettling novelists.
So much of what makes Dexter's fiction immediately compelling -- the writing's laconic elegance; the deft portrayals of violence (sudden and long simmering); his affection and affinity for the underdog, and for those beneath the underdog -- is on rich display in "Paper Trails," a collection of articles from the Philadelphia Daily News, Sacramento Bee, Playboy, Esquire and other publications.
The pieces here -- most of them from his newspaper days, and few topping out at more than 600 words or so -- appear without titles and in no discernible chronology, a circumstance that Dexter explains, sort of, in the book's introduction, when he describes how he and the book's editor, Rob Fleder of Sports Illustrated, wrestled with how to present the material:
"The truth is, I have never been much of a worrier about logical order. Why can't we just shuffle them? On the other hand ... I saw that Fleder was right about the dates. The dates were crucial, lest some worn-out old whore like Jonathan Yardley over at the Washington Post use the opportunity to gratuitously insult the author's work ethic. To head that off, I agreed on the need for the dates of publication, and, the next day, when we saw what obtaining these dates entailed, we simultaneously acknowledged that what we really needed was not the dates of publication, but an inviolate, inarguable, incurable reason for not having the dates of publication."
While the introduction, perversely, features exactly the sort of writing -- slippery, circuitous, even coy -- that the author, at his best, has always avoided, fear not. The meat of the book is vintage Dexter. In the foreword, legendary New York reporter and editor Pete Hamill neatly places "Paper Trails" in the context of "the American dragons of race, violence, drugs, booze, and hypocrisy" of the '70s and '80s while ticking off the simple, enduring strengths of Dexter the journalist. "His nouns were concrete. His verbs were active. He actually listened to his subjects. He described the world he was looking at so that the reader could go there too. And he trusted the reader. He didn't have to italicize his points." Dexter's "first drafts," Hamill writes, are "as good as it ever gets."
But first things first. Literally.
Like all great newspaper men, Dexter understood the importance and power of a strong lead, as if he were daring you to stop reading. He pulls you right in:
"For ABC newsman Bill Stewart, it ended at a roadblock in Nicaragua."
"The man this story is about died last week."
"Louie the Dog Boy says he is reformed."
"The cat never had a name, we just fell into calling her Mother."
And when you are in, you are in for good. As Hamill points out in his introduction: "Philadelphia fighters were famous [when Dexter was writing in the city] for their mastery of the explosive left hook, but they all knew that the hook must come off a jab." Few writers can genuinely approximate with the rhythm and power of their words the jab, jab, jab, boom! of a Smokin' Joe Frazier or Bernard Hopkins (powerhouses from Philly), but from the first words to the last in almost every one of the pieces here, Dexter delivers.
As with all great fighters and writers, even when you know it's coming, the perfectly placed fist or phrase can leave you reeling.
Writing about an off-duty Philadelphia cop who was kicked unconscious by three drunken scumbags in front of his own house, in front of his wife and baby daughter, Dexter tells the story of one changing neighborhood, of one small family, and of sudden, irredeemable violence. He ruminates on fatherhood and aging and mellowing. He does all this in 600 words, never neglecting to include real human voices, as in some perfectly pitched quotes from the officer's wife.
And then, at the end, discussing the "kids" who set upon the cop, Dexter gives us this:
"Maybe something will happen to a couple of these kids along the way, bad enough to scare the others. I hope so, because there is another side to all the mellowing I was talking about before.
"You come to understand that you are half your baby's life.
"And no eighteen- or twenty-year-old kid is going to take that away because he's drunk or dumb or mean.
"Once you know the stakes, you will kill him first."
From an awful lot of writers, that sort of claim might sound like forced bravado. From Dexter, it carries the chilling spark of observed, lived truth. While only alluded to one time in the entire book, Dexter was once, famously, nearly stomped to death himself in a bar brawl in Philadelphia after writing a story about a drug deal gone bad. This was shortly after he'd already had his face broken by patrons of the same bar when he'd gone there to try to "talk it out" with a bartender there who had taken exception to the story. The point is that Dexter knows violence. He didn't seek it, nor did he hide from it when work brought it to his door.
Now, before a pall falls completely across whatever's left of the page, it's probably time to point out that Dexter can also, at times, be one very funny writer (humor, and especially self-deprecating humor, being a trait that no newspaper columnist can survive forever without).
Covering a chess match between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, Dexter resists the temptation to consider the scene in athletic terms -- as seemingly everyone else around him feels compelled to. As his neighbor in the balcony, dubbed "the foreign correspondent," remarks in hushed, reverent tones on the intensity of the contest ("Karpov's too old for this. Physically, he can't take it"), Dexter's having none of it.
"I look at Karpov carefully when he comes back [from a break], trying to figure out how old he is. Maybe forty. He moves another pawn, but somehow manages to hide the physical exertion. I suppose all the great ones make it look easy."
Some readers will be bored by the several pieces that focus on domestic squabbles with the obviously long-suffering Mrs. Dexter, especially those that feel like little more than extended, repeated riffs on the same tired "Lockhorns" cartoon. But even here, Dexter pulls a few surprises, as when he somehow makes stuffing a raw, unshelled egg down the back of his wife's pants -- to teach his daughter a science lesson -- sound like an act of loving (if sophomoric) kindness rather than borderline assault.
In the end, this collection swings the reader, without warning, between goofy familial scenes, genuinely horrifying tales of depravity (the tale of bestiality and dead souls that unfolds after the "Louie the Dog Boy" lead is especially hard to shake), sweet and unsentimental portraits of lost and wounded animals, grifters, whores, cops, newshounds -- in short, the stuff of life seen from the street. There is grit here, and grace, and more than a few small, memorable masterpieces of the reporter's art. We're lucky Dexter and Fleder took the time to reassemble them, no matter the order, no the matter the lost titles, no matter how cute the introduction. This is writing.