Pete Dexter has been in the news around here lately, and keeping that ball rolling, I’ve contributed a piece to The Rumpus series “The Last Book I Loved” about Dexter’s collection of columns, Paper Trails. Technically, it’s not the last book I’ve loved (more recently there’s been Waiting for the Barbarians, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Shadow Country, A Mercy, and a few others), so let’s just call it “One of the Last Books I Loved.”
Advance readers copies, the paperbacks sent out early to book reviewers, often contain special notes from authors or editors that impart a little back story or extol the virtues of the book at hand, but I’ve never seen an author’s note quite like the one that Pete Dexter penned for the advance readers copies of his forthcoming novel Spooner: As far as I know, sometime in November of last year, the book you have in your hands was three years late. There are many reasons it was three years late, probably the most conspicuous being that it was once 250 pages or so longer than the version you hold, and it takes maybe half a year to write an extra 250 pages, and at least twice that to subtract them back out. I realize this leaves another year and a half unaccounted for, and all I can say about that, readers, is get in line. Whole decades are missing from my life and I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have it any other way.At any rate; it turns out that bringing a book home three years past deadline presents problems for the publisher. Publications have to be set (again), covers drawn, generous comments collected – god knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I’ve been diddling around with this thing – and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end someone had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn’t me. I could have kept this up for another five years. Oh, and a title. They thought a title might be nice.All to say that what you have here, while not exactly a first draft, is further away from the finished product than most advanced readers’ editions are, and when you come across sentences you particularly don’t like, keep in mind that I probably didn’t like them either. On the odd chance that the bad sentences are still there when the book comes out, then you should keep in mind that you’re reading somebody who is still missing 18 months of the last 36, and has no idea about 2006 at all.This isn’t the first time that Dexter has prefaced a book with an introduction that threatens to divide his readers into those who get his sense of humor and those who don’t. The introduction to Paper Trails (this time in the actual published edition), which collects Dexter’s columns and articles from his legendary newspaper career, 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.”What’s interesting to me about Dexter is that, while his fiction is quite good, his wry, impolitic sense of humor doesn’t always shine through in his noirish, almost hard-boiled novels. Instead, you need to read his (essential) Paper Trails or keep an eye out for things like the remarkable author’s note quoted above.
It’s tough times for newspapers in many American cities and Philadelphia is no exception. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News were bought by a group of investors under the name Philadelphia Media Holdings following the split up of the newspapers’ former parent Knight Ridder. Already in decline due both to the cuts of its corporate owners and the negative climate for newspapers, the pair of papers has struggled even further under their new owners.Earlier this month, Inquirer book editor Frank Wilson departed and described the machinations of newspaper management that led him to step down. The story is fairly familiar to anyone who has followed the industry over the last few years.While cost cutting and streamlining have become almost mundane at America’s newspapers, a new story emerging regarding one of Philadelphia’s most storied journalists is a bit more strange. As reported by Steve Volk for Philadelphia magazine, the newspaper company is now going after Pete Dexter, a one time Philadelphia journalist who has gone on to have a fruitful career as a novelist. Last year, he hearkened back to his days as a newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and elsewhere by publishing a collection of his old columns, Paper Trails.However, there must’ve been some miscommunication along the way because Philadelphia Media Holdings is now asking for a chunk of Dexter’s $60,000 advance, which Dexter gave to his editor Rob Fleder who did all the work of digging through the archives at compiling the collection. Meanwhile, the book’s paperback release has been delayed. In the above-linked article, it appears as though Dexter and Fleder acted in good faith, though the introduction to Paper Trails does describe the somewhat cavalier attitude with which Dexter and Fleder approached the book. In it, the reader is told 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, Dexter and Fleder didn’t want to dig them up. This adds to the collection’s charm but doesn’t exactly lend an aura of due diligence.Regardless, it’s hard to get behind what Philadelphia Media Holdings is doing here. By Philadelphia magazine’s account, the paper is attempting to intimidate Dexter and his agent, with little regard for the papers’ already bad reputation. One would think a compromise could have been reached over a relatively minor sum.As an aside, earlier this week, we looked at books for fans of HBO’s Deadwood. I would say that Paper Trails is a must read for fans of another HBO hit, The Wire. I posted my thoughts on Paper Trails early last year.
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.Bonus Links: My review of Paris Trout; My review of Train; My review of Brotherly Love; The day I met Dexter.
As I did in 2005 and 2006, I’ve decided to open this year looking ahead to some of the exciting or intriguing titles that we’ll be talking about over the next few months.Possibly the biggest literary arrival of this young year will be that of Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest later this month. Unfortunately for some fans, the book is not the long hoped for sequel to Harlot’s Ghost, a book that Mailer abandoned for this one, according to an interview. With this effort Mailer treads into charged territory, chronicling the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of the devil or something like it. The curious can read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the January issue of Esquire.Also coming right around the corner is House of Meetings by Martin Amis. The book came out in the UK in September where John Banville in The Independent named it a “Book of the Year.” The reviews have been generally good. The Observer called it a “compact tour de force.” The Guardian was slightly more skeptical saying that the book is “an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we’re never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice.”Also this month, Paul Auster’s latest book Travels in the Scriptorium comes out. It sounds like another inscrutable, postmodern tale from Auster, this time starring a protagonist named Mr. Blank. In this case, Auster’s inward looking tendencies are amplified as the book references many of his previous works. At both Condalmo and Strange Horizons, this particular Auster experiment has been deemed less successful.Louis Begley, author of About Schmidt, has Matters of Honor coming out this month. It starts with three unlikely roommates at Harvard in the 1950s and goes on to trace how the diverging outcomes of their lives came to be. If that sounds like a tired old tale, PW makes the same observation but then brushes it aside: “It’s a story covered by everyone from Cheever to Roth, but Begley finds new and wonderful nuances within it.”Colum McCann’s fourth novel Zoli will hit shelves soon. The book is named for a Roma (or Gypsy) woman in Slovakia who we follow from her harrowing childhood during World War II to her becoming something of local literary celebrity. Through it all, however, she is unable to escape what her heritage signifies in her Communist bloc country. The book has been out for several months in Ireland and the UK where The Guardian hailed McCann’s “near pitch-perfect control of character and narrative.” For those who want a taste, a pdf excerpt from the book is available.Another big name with a new book out this year is Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills arrives in February. Hills is being billed as Smiley’s “LA Novel” (note that Jonathan Lethem’s “LA Novel” arrives in March). PW sums it all up rather well: “Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity.” On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the world needs another literary look at the Hollywood-caricature side of LA.February will also see the arrival of Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. This is Alarcon’s first novel, following his collection of stories, War by Candlelight, which was a finalist for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award. Alarcon likely came to many readers’ attention in 2003, when his story “City of Clowns” was featured in the New Yorker debut fiction issue. This new book scored a blurb from Edward P. Jones – “Mr. Alarcon, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own.” – always a good sign.Also in February, a new book will arrive from Nuruddin Farah, quite likely the best known Somali novelist and the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. Knots is about Cambara, a Somalian woman who has emigrated to Canada, where a crisis sends her on a journey back to Somalia. Farah is known for his strong female protagonists and this book appears to be no exception. Knots gets a glowing review from PW – “Despite its heavy subject, joy suffuses the novel” – and Farah will likely continue to be discussed as a potential Nobel winner.It would be strange to read a book by Jonathan Lethem that wasn’t deeply rooted in his hometown of Brooklyn, but readers will get that chance in March when You Don’t Love Me Yet arrives. The book is set in Los Angeles, but, while Fortress of Solitude had some amusing LA moments set in the office of a Hollywood agent, this new book concerns itself with the city’s grungier east side neighborhoods, home to a star-crossed indie rock band whose members are classic LA misfits. Early accounts at PW and this bookseller’s blog have found the book to be funny and entertaining but not up to par with the author’s earlier efforts.If you’ll indulge me in allowing a little non-fiction to sneak into this post, please note that William T. Vollmann has a new book coming out in March called Poor People, a rather slim tome, weighing in it at just 464 pages. This is the book that Vollmann mentioned when Ed and Scott saw him read back in spring 2005. From Scott’s post: “Vollman is currently working on a book about the experiences of poor people in different countries. He says he asks everyone why they think they are poor, and the answers greatly vary. He says most of the Thais told him it’s because they were bad in a previous life. Most of the Mexicans he spoke to told him it was because the rich stole from them.”A book by Columbian writer Laura Restrepo will hit American shores in March. Delirium was originally written in 2004 and follows the life of a struggling literature professor who must investigate what has caused his wife to go insane. The book bears an impressive array of blurbs befitting a writer of Restrepo’s stature (if not here, then overseas), including raves from Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Bloom, and Vikram Seth.We’ll also see a new novel from Kurt Andersen co-founder of the influential magazine Spy and host of the public radio show Studio 360. Heyday is set in the mid-19th century and it follows an immigrant, recently arrived on bustling American shores, who falls in with a group heading west, lured by the California Gold Rush. Random House calls the book “an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas.” A short story about two of the book’s main characters appeared in Metropolis in 2003.Debut novelist Joshua Ferris already has a backer in Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who says Then We Came To The End is “a humane and affecting book.” Mark also included the novel in his contribution to the Year in Reading series where he said that this “hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change [his] mind about MFAs.” Of course, Mark is fully aware that we all might not share his particular tastes, so he convinced publisher Little, Brown to let him publish the book’s first chapter at TEV, where you can now check it out for yourself.Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver also has a new book coming in March, The Post-Birthday World. PW describes as “impressive if exhausting” this novel that explores what might have been if its children’s book illustrator protagonist had given into temptation and pursued an affair. Following the success of Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and the subsequent re-release of her back catalog, The Post-Birthday World marks her first new effort since hitting the literary big time.The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 by the late Roberto Bolano, will arrive in April. The book has already appeared in other languages, which is how Francois of Tabula Rasa came to read it. he shared his reactions with us as a part of the Year in Reading series: “Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him.” New Directions, meanwhile, will publish a translation of Bolano’s novella Amulet in January.There’s not much available yet on Dani Shapiro’s new book arriving in April. Buzz Girl notes that Black and White is “about mothers and daughters set in New York and Maine.” The book follows Shapiro’s well received 2003 book Family History.The biggest literary month of 2007 might be May which will start with the much anticipated, much delayed publication of Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon’s first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a thriller set in an imaginary world inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s short-lived plan during WWII to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska, rather than the Middle East. Sounds interesting, no? We’ve been following this book for quite some time now, as it was originally set to be released nearly a year ago. But Chabon put the brakes on the project when he decided it was moving along too fast.Yet another big name author with a new book out this year is Haruki Murakami, whose book After Dark hits shelves in May. The book was originally published in Japan in 2004, and has already been translated into some other languages, including Dutch. In keeping with the title, the novel tracks a number of nocturnal characters who dwell in Tokyo and have the sorts of encounters that tend to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Murakami’s typical melding of dream and reality will be familiar to readers of this new novel as well. Still, I join Scott Esposito in hoping that Murakami breaks new ground with this new book.Also in May: the arrival of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Not much available on this one yet, save a stray synopsis or two. The novel begins with a family on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and moves to the casinos of Nevada, at which point a “traumatic event” breaks the family apart. The pieces are put back together in the novel’s second part, which takes place “in the stark landscape of south-central France.” Like I said, not much to go on just yet.Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, has a new book coming out in May. The Big Girls is based on Moore’s experience teaching writing in a federal prison in New York, and one early look at the novel found it to be, as one might expect, fairly disturbing. It’ll be interesting to see other opinions of what sounds like a very emotionally charged book.The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins will arrive in June. Wiggins’ last book, Evidence of Things Unseen, was a National Book Award finalist in 2003. This new book is a historical novel about the Old West photographer Edward Curtis.I’ll close the list with two additional non-fiction books that I’m particularly looking forward to. Pete Dexter has a collection of his old newspaper columns coming out called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. A number of the columns are from his time in Philadelphia, which should be of particular interest for me, since the city is now my home. In addition, I’ve always felt that the old school newspaperman’s sensibility that Dexter brings to his fiction is one of his most appealing qualities as a writer, so I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to delve into the pure stuff, as it were. Another journalist whose new collection is, for me, hotly anticipated is Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski is a Polish writer who, to me, is unsurpassed in his chronicling of the so-called Third World and its forgotten wars and struggles. I don’t yet know what his latest, Travels with Herodotus, will cover, but I know I’ll be reading it.While long, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please use the comments to share what you’re looking forward to reading in 2007.
I was poking around Amazon today and I came across a listing for a new book by Pete Dexter called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. I’m a fan of Dexter’s (see my review of Train, my review of Brotherly Love, and my review of Paris Trout), so I’m excited to see he’s got a new book, but what has me especially thrilled is that, if the subtitle is to be believed, the book is non-fiction. I had the chance to attend one of Dexter’s signings once, and he rattled off story after story, many of them from his days as an old newspaper guy in Philadelphia; it was definitely one of the most entertaining readings I’ve ever been to. This new book is being put out by Ecco. If anyone knows anything else about the book (or can get me a copy), let me know.