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.
The brothers’ problems recall those of Peter Flood, the protagonist of Brotherly Love (1992), this novel’s immediate and much-praised predecessor. Peter, like Ward, is a masochist (in addition to boxing, a Dexter passion, he likes jumping off rooftops), with an absent mother and a mostly silent – and soon silenced – father; yet he, too, is drawn to family, for all its flaws and inadequacies (murderous ones in Peter’s case). In the new novel, the aetiology of these problems is less important than the light they shed on journalism itself. The novel seems to be saying of Ward that this is the sort of person who becomes this sort of journalist, obsessed with facts and stories. The father is presented as pure newspaperman: he ‘loves those things most that he can no longer touch or see’, and keeps experience at bay by telling stories, until ‘finally the stories, and the things in them, are as perfect and sharp as the edge of the knife he keeps in his pocket’. Journalists will their protective myopia, working ‘each day for the next day ... which is the fundamental rhythm of the news business’, a narrowness which also explains the attractions of the newsroom. ‘When the phone was ringing every five minutes and I was turning two dozen frantic calls into a single story,’ Jack later recalls, having himself entered the business, and thinking also of Ward: ‘I would lose myself in it for an hour or two, and find a certain peace in the confusion and excitement.’
Jack and the reader only gradually discover Ward’s inadequacies. At first the novel offers a simple and familiar contrast between good journalists (who care about truth and avoid flash) and bad ones (that is, ‘New’ ones, mere stylists). Ward is the good journalist, a facts man; his partner, Yardley Acheman, does the writing. Yardley is ‘handsome in a spoiled way, a pretty boy’, and he has ‘no interest in facts ... a shortcoming for a newspaperman’. Not only does Yardley make things up (crucially, in writing about the central crime), he swans off to New York, ‘socialising with famous writers and journalists at a bar called Elaine’s’. (The novel is set in 1969, so Yardley is to be imagined drinking with Tom Wolfe, or Truman Capote.) Dexter, a successful novelist who still works as a newspaperman and lives in the sticks, on an island in the Puget Sound, clearly detests Yardley, but Ward is no hero either. At times in Dexter’s fiction, a Ward-like manner – Dexter’s own narrative manner, brisk, declarative, macho – is valued as it is in Hemingway, or in genre fiction and film; in Brotherly Love, for example, the most virtuous characters, the boxers Nick and Harry DiMaggio, are the most taciturn, the plainest-speaking. Here, as in Paris Trout, such a manner is revealed as a defence, marking deficiency or limitation. The integrity it means to express, the sense of a personality as whole or ‘intact’, to use the novel’s own term, hardens into imperviousness, disconnection, egomania – murderous qualities in Paris Trout, also masochistic and suicidal ones, as here.
Everyone involved in the injustice Ward and Yardley seek to expose is pretty much despicable; this helps to dissolve the initial moral opposition between fact types and style types. The plot proper begins when the Miami Times receives a letter from Charlotte Lewis, a middle-aged postal worker with a thing for condemned murderers. (Bizarre postal employees, or employees driven mad working in post offices, are common enough these days to have spawned their own locution, ‘going postal’, as when someone opens fire in a McDonald’s.) Charlotte’s new love is Hillary Van Wetter, as cunning and creepy a figure as Paris Trout himself; funny, too, in the manner, say, of Hannibal Lector. Van Wetter, she claims, has been unfairly convicted of the 1965 murder of Sheriff Thurmond Call of Moat County. Sheriff Call was himself horrible, having, ‘even by Moat County standards, killed an inappropriate number of Negroes’, and only last spring ‘kicked a man to death on a public street.’ That man was Jerome Van Wetter, Hillary’s cousin ‘once or twice removed’ (the family is notoriously primitive and inbred), and when Call’s disembowelled and half-skinned body is found one morning, attention immediately focuses on Hillary, the ‘most unpredictable and ferocious’ Van Wetter.
Charlotte is kinky and oversexed, in the manner of Hanna Trout or Grace Katz in Brotherly Love, themselves figures out of film noir or detective fiction. When bothered by a friendly dog she casually reaches down a hand (a ring on every finger, one set with a convict’s tooth) and touches its head: ‘the dog came up slowly then, encircled her leg with his legs, and she pushed him down just as slowly, prying him off just as he started to pump.’ When visiting Hillary in Maximum Security, Charlotte brings him off simply opening her mouth and wetting her lips. As for Hillary’s predecessors: ‘she still liked to think of them at night, imprisoned in six different states, staring at her picture in the half light of their cells, the place completely quiet except for their hard breathing and their rattling cots.’ Hillary is special, though, in ways that recall Ward’s defensive reserve. His letters, Charlotte brags, contain ‘no evasions, no lawyer jargon, no bragging. He was purer than her other killers, but she had sensed that from the start. Uncompromised by jail and attorneys, an intact man.’
And a monster – like the man he’s accused of killing and like Charlotte herself. For Ward to work himself to death in the interests of such people suggests the morally neutral character of his obsession with the case, and by extension his profession, especially since the wrongs he uncovers investigating Hillary’s original prosecution are matters of routine incompetence or sloth rather than corruption. Here as elsewhere the novel undermines the genre expectations it evokes: there’s no conspiracy on the part of the authorities, for all the familiar conspiracy touches (the tight-lipped townsfolk, the 41 boxes of ‘evidence’, the missing witness); Ward, the ace reporter, is thoroughly hoodwinked; Yardley’s nemesis, a young female reporter, is herself unheroic (myopic, hysterical, careerist); Jack learns nothing, eventually taking over the family paper (as opposed to settling into principled obscurity). As such details suggest, Dexter is determined to distance his novel from ‘the purity that is familiar to readers of newspapers’. Yet this purity persists, principally in the narrative voice, with its spare, no-bullshit directness, a voice familiar from Dexter’s previous novels (though less in evidence in God’s Pocket and Deadwood, its 1986 successor, a comic Western of sorts). This voice is pleasurable, like the clean, brisk lines of the plot, but it is also limited, as the novel itself is at pains to suggest.
Steve Lopez also comes to fiction from journalism, having worked as a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer since 1986, and before that as a reporter for the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury. Third and Indiana, his first novel, arrives garlanded with praise both from Dexter (‘Clean. Hard in all the right ways’) and Tim O’Brien, but Lopez is no Dexter. To begin with, he’s less original, in both subject matter and treatment. Gabriel Santoro, the novel’s 14-year-old protagonist, is a crack dealer in inner-city Philadelphia, hemmed in by psychopathic drug-lords, on the run from his loving and bewildered mother, Ofelia, from gruff but warm-hearted Lieutenant Bagno of the Philadelphia police, from the campaigning priest, Father Laetner. In other words, he’s a thoroughly familiar figure, like the teenage crack-dealer, Strike, in Richard Price’s riveting Clockers (1992), or the eponymous 12-year-old hero of Boaz Yakim’s film Fresh(1995) who also deals drugs, or the doomed ‘Little Precious’ in the Top Forty hit ‘Waterfalls’ by the rap group TLC. Gabriel outsmarts the brutal drug lords, like Strike and Fresh; but he also ends up dead, cradled in his mother’s arms, like ‘Little Precious’ in the ‘Waterfalls’ video.
The novel’s dual narrative structure is also familiar. Just as Clockers alternates episodes from Strike’s street-life with the gathering disintegration of Rocco Klein, the cop who hunts him, so Gabriel’s manoeuvrings alternate with the difficulties of a comparably stressed figure, the jazz musician Eddie Passcrelli. When the two strands finally intertwine, they do so sentimentally; in addition to outwitting his tormentors (in a plan so intricate only Fresh could figure it out) Gabriel also engineers his mother’s romance with Eddie. Other sentimental touches include Gabriel’s ‘tough love’ girlfriend Marisol, Ofelia’s mystical leanings, and the ‘newspaper purity’ of Father Laetner. Gabriel himself is described as ‘a dark sliver of a boy with slow, sad eyes’. When a gun is fired a ‘thin column of smoke’ rises from its muzzle. Gabriel’s father warns him to attend in school with the words: ‘You don’t wanna end up like your old man.’
The best moments in the novel involve Diablo, Gabriel’s brutal boss; these are also, one presumes, the moments when Lopez’s knowledge of the North Philadelphia Badlands comes into play. Diablo is street supervisor for the Black Caps gang, which means he’s in charge of 20 four-man crews. These crews consist of lookouts, a seller or dealer and a crew captain. The plot focuses on one such crew and its interactions with the street boss, largely ignoring higher echelons of the trade, though there’s some talk of gang rivalry and turf wars. The crew chief’s job is to hide the stash, delivered in bundles by a drop-off man. He also hides the gun (never with the stash) and delivers fresh bundles to the dealer. ‘The thing you never wanted to do was to have drugs and the gun on you at the same time, because it was automatic prison.’ The lookouts, often as young as eight or nine, make sure the police, who patrol every night and know exactly what’s going on, never see an actual transaction – the only way they can make an arrest. Gabriel does his selling on the most dangerous corner of the city, Third and Indiana, and in the event of trouble is meant to use the gun, though he never has. If anyone messes up, they deal with Diablo, who keeps pit bulls – which he shoots, at a rate of ‘about three a week’. Diablo is paranoid as well as psychotic and travels from crew to crew with a pack of bodyguards so frightened of him that ‘if he told them to, they’d shoot themselves in the head.’
The soppy story and its complications eventually overwhelm the documentary features of the novel; Diablo himself disappears for improbably long spells, the mechanics of the drug trade cease to figure. Yet the story itself is pure journalism. Though Dexter praises the novel for its ‘hardness’ this is the very quality it lacks, and not just in terms of narrative. Lopez fancies himself a stylist, and the novel contains passages of flowery fine writing of the sort Jack deplores in The Paperboy, as both ‘out of place’ and ‘ordinary’ – that is, familiar, a criticism as applicable to this sort of novel as to journalism. There’s also a softness about the ending, which offers little hope for the solution of inner-city problems, but sees the union of Eddie and Ofelia, and their escape from the Badlands.