If you love the kind of writing that transports you to places you never would imagine visiting, and coming across characters you never would expect to meet, then there are more than 80 reasons to get a copy of Pete Dexter's Paper Trails. Well, the number, to be exact, is 82.
Each is a journalistic gem within Paper Trails, a collection of columns and magazine articles written by Dexter during the 1970s and '80s when he worked for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Sacramento Bee. Some pieces in the collection also appeared in magazines such as Sports Illustrated and Esquire, although there's no way to tell when any of them was originally published. Dexter and his editor, Rob Fleder, agreed that nailing down the publication dates entailed more work than either cared to do. So in the introduction to Paper Trails, Dexter writes that they opted to leave the stories dateless "to avoid compromising the timelessness of these pieces." That's Pete Dexter humor. And he's right. When the stories were published actually is irrelevant since they do pass the test of time.
Many of the situations and behavior described in these stories don't seem, at first, out of the ordinary. They're the kind of everyday occurrences that you barely notice living in a city or checking into a hotel or just staring out your kitchen window. But Dexter, with his eye for detail and gift for recognizing the drama in daily living, changes the way we look at things.
Long after reading Paper Trails, you will remember the mother cat that was found shot, the female peacock's infatuation with the light on a trash compactor, a beautiful Appaloosa that dies and an indestructible 700-pound sow.
Some of the stories, especially those with animal characters, are a hoot. But not all. Take, for instance, the one about the old black dog that got run over by a police car and left screaming with his back broken. The cop wouldn't finish him off, and he wouldn't give Dexter his gun so that he could finish him off. The dog died on his own. Dexter walked into the house looking for a place to throw up.
But Dexter's rage really sears the pages when he writes about the brutal beating of a white guy -- "the closest thing to a lynching that has ever appeared on mass-market television" -- and the acquittal of his black assailant by a Los Angeles jury.
He takes you into the dispiriting world of a woman who worked for a Sacramento title company and let's you hear her tale of rape by a hot-shot "All-American boy" real estate salesman -- and how the crime went unpunished.
You sit with Dexter in the living room with "Louie the Dog Boy" and his mother and realize there is absolutely nothing ordinary or likable about Louie. "Louie the Dog Boy says he is reformed," writes Dexter. "He doesn't have sexual intercourse with dogs anymore. Doesn't choke them or tie them up and beat them with sticks or make them fight each other like he used to, either. Or torture them with broomsticks." Neighbors say he still does. You wish Dexter had not taken you there, but a little glad you came along, and even happier that you don't have to stay.
Not so with the boxing ring, the race track and movie set that you leave knowing a lot more about those places and the people who work at jobs you would never dream of doing.
When Dexter writes about his wife, who is referred to here only as "Mrs. Dexter," you sense a marital relationship that is different from the one he has put into words, and you suspect that Dexter wants you to know that, too. She's the perfect foil in his comic world, but it's obvious that, at least at the time the pieces were written, she was more than that to him.
Dexter abandoned his brand of spellbinding journalism for much greener writing pastures, labor not driven by newspaper deadlines. His novels, including the National Book Award winner Paris Trout, led the Los Angeles Times to describe him as "the Faulkner of our time." I'll leave that kind of judging to others. But for riveting storytelling and insight into people and circumstances that most of us either take for granted or can't see, Paper Trails is what great newspaper writing is all about. ·
True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage
By Pete Dexter
Edited by Rob Fleder
Ecco. 289 pp. $25.95