Going Postal

Zachary Leader

  • The Paperboy by Pete Dexter
    Viking, 307 pp, £15.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 670 86066 2
  • Third and Indiana by Steve Lopez
    Viking, 305 pp, £10.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 670 86132 4

The no-bullshit newsman as hero is a staple of film and genre fiction. To Pete Dexter, though, the type is deeply suspect. Dexter has been a newspaperman most of his working life, first as a reporter, for the local West Palm Beach Post (1971-72), then as a staff writer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News (1972-84) and now for the Sacramento Bee. He has also written five novels, the best-known of which, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award in 1988. Though born in Michigan, he was partly raised in the South, in Georgia, the setting of Paris Trout. His new novel, The Paperboy, is also set in the South, but its concerns are only incidentally Southern. Its central preoccupation is journalism, a topic touched on in his first novel, God’s Pocket(1984), set in working-class Philadelphia. The new novel is about a crime, and has a crime thriller’s feel, but as in some police procedurals, the milieu of the investigator, in this case a journalistic milieu, overshadows that of both criminal and victim.

The investigators in question are damaged, a common feature of Dexter’s characters. Jack James, the narrator, is almost as screwed up as his brother Ward, the titular ‘paperboy’, star reporter on the Miami Times. Jack self-destructs in his first year at the University of Florida, returning in shame to the narcotic routines of his father’s home in North Florida, driving a delivery truck for the Moat County Tribune, his father’s newspaper. Ward, too, disappears into his work, into ‘facts’, and when work fails him, into drink. Ward’s anaesthetising habits are connected to his confused sexuality. He likes sailors, the novel suggests, or likes being beaten up by them. Dexter himself was nearly beaten to death in 1982 as a result of a column he wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News, and horrific beatings figure prominently in his fiction (so too does an unsettling physicality, as when, on the operating table, Ward feels his surgeons ‘lifting the bones in my face, cutting them’). Jack’s retreat is more obscurely motivated, though his fear of growing up is clear; he’s like Holden Caulfield, in limbo after expulsion, and repeatedly disillusioned. Jack, too, drinks, but also seeks oblivion in the ocean, swimming out a mile or more, as if ‘I threw myself away,’ then floating back to shore, without struggle, ‘just part of the ocean’.

Both brothers have been damaged, the novel implies, by their comparably damaged father, William Ward (‘World War’) James, who is affectless and an easy mark – because so removed from feeling, or the expression of feeling. The father takes his wife’s departure (with the local drama teacher) in his stride; is unable to remember the name of the black maid who has cleaned and cooked for him for years; never asks Jack about his sudden expulsion from college; repeatedly withdraws to his study, drinking alone in his favourite chair and scanning rival papers. Jack is badly hurt when a scheming assistant on the Tribune seduces and then marries the old man (after Jack rebuffs her advances), instantly changing locks on the sons; the father is oblivious to Jack’s distress, or ignores it. Ward does everything he can to avoid the family home, in part because of fatherly expectations: he knows he’ll never be his father’s type of man – steady, well-connected, a pillar of Moat County society.

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