It seems likely to me that a few readers will not get past the introduction of Pete Dexter’s new book, a collection of newspaper columns and magazine articles called Paper Trails. In it he lets us know that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place. He tells us that the 82 columns and articles we are about to read will lack dates and any indication as to where they first appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. He also calls the venerable Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley a “worn-out old whore.”
The people who don’t appreciate any of this, of course, are probably the same people who wrote to him over the years outraged by the way he treated his wife. For those who get Dexter, however, all of this is brilliant. Dexter is adamantly self-deprecating and willing to step on plenty of toes. He also used thousands of column inches to mercilessly tease his wife, as any reader of this collection will quickly discover. Naturally, to those with a sense of humor, it’s clear that Mrs. Dexter is just the foil for his antics.
Though Dexter the newspaperman often comes off as brash and insensitive, compassion is Dexter’s most irrepressible quality in this collection of columns. Written primarily for newspapers in Philadelphia and Sacramento, Dexter’s columns evince a keen eye for people wronged by the system, and in them he slays corrupt cops, sleazy lawyers, and crooked politicians deftly with his pen. However, and this was a surprise to me, he also devotes plenty of ink to animals, his cats and dogs mostly, but there was also his memorable encounter with a peahen.
Columns like these, 1000-word missives shot out of a cannon, are not seen much these days. Nowadays, local newspaper columnists aren’t the advocates they once were, instead getting caught up commenting on whatever was featured on CNN that day or hammering on petty controversies. It seems less likely that Dexter fell prey to those temptations during his newspaper career, and these 82 columns, stripped of their context and years or decades old, are no less affecting for it. It is a book that will make you laugh and cry nearly 82 times over.
The central thread running through the collection, of course, is Dexter himself, sometimes the comic hero, other times carrying the weight of human depravity – the murders, the missing bodies, the broken families, and the drunks – on his shoulders. The urban decay of the 1970s, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, is the backdrop to this book. He wrote about the violent city, and violence would help end his newspaper career when he was beaten nearly to death by a mob in South Philly in 1981. As Pete Hamill explains in the forward to Paper Trails, Dexter had gone that day to make peace with brother of a man who had died in a drug deal and who Dexter had written about, but the man turned on him. Dexter would move on and wrote novels and screenplays – and this collection includes some of Dexter’s writing from that era, too – but even if Dexter hadn’t achieved his late career success, one suspects he would not have been bitter about it.