Dexter does it

Pete Dexter’s bleak, cackling fictions always have felt torn from the pages of a newspaper—and for good reason. Long before he became widely known as the author of Train or Paris Trout, Dexter was a reporter and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Sacramento Bee. He turned to writing fiction in 1985 after he was nearly beaten to death by angry readers for one of his pieces.

This dark, luscious little book collects 82 of these columns, as well as work from several magazines like Playboy and Esquire. Reading it is like going on a tour through Dexter’s dark places. Here is a Sacramento prostitute trying to make rent, the murdered grimly glimpsed, the streets of Philadelphia coughing up its battered and undead souls.

As a former gas-station attendant and construction laborer, Dexter has a profound empathy for people who work too hard to get so little. He is also an unflinching reporter of the way these pressures—and the rage latent in so many men—can turn family dramas dangerous. In one column, he describes an old boyfriend kicking down the door of a woman’s house and beating her in front of her children. The police take half an hour to arrive.

Dexter writes of violence with a matter-of-fact economy that one is tempted to call hardboiled were it not an affectation of style, but rather blunt truth. “It is a fact that there are places in this city where the streets belong to the kids who drink on them,” he writes in one piece about an off-duty police officer beaten unconscious before his wife and kid. “And it is fact that once in a while they kick somebody senseless.”

If it’s not clear already, this book chronicles Dexter’s education in hard knocks. It’s also a darn good example of how newspaper life makes you a magnet for the weird. In one vignette, Dexter watches a strongman for hire have a 7,100 pound van drive over his stomach. After so much bravado, the man waves it off after 8 seconds. “You might not realize it,” he says afterward, “but that really hurts.”

Like all the best columnists, Dexter understood his role was to channel the spirit of his city onto the page. He can be wry and he can be serious, but he always leaves the best lines to other people. One amusing story unfolds in a bar, where Dexter meets a 75-year-old drunk woman who is mean. She keeps picking on “Petey Pete” for having messy hair. “I’d use a hairnet if my hair looked like that,” she says.

Dexter emerges from these pages as a comically disheveled character. He turns in manuscripts riddled with blood stains and swatted flies. He spends a fair bit of time in bars and with broken body parts. His ear leaks. His wife is humorously long-suffering. Meanwhile, he offers up wisdom like: “I don’t know why, but the only place you see licenses anymore are places you are likely to die. Doctors’ offices, bars, elevators, and taxis.”

Paper Trails is a winning book—the sort you keep around because it’s good company and delivers the news in short powerful bursts. The cities are failing us. Bad things happen in the night. Whole lives are stuffed onto its pages. But things might turn out in the end, the humor tells us. In most cases, these sorts of tales would become fish wrap for tomorrow. Paper Trails proves Dexter’s best work on deadline deserves a longer life.