Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which are Not about Marriage by Pete DexterThere are two things I can say with confidence upon having read Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which are Not about Marriage by Pete Dexter. One: Pete Dexter is really strange. And, two: I like Pete Dexter very, very much.
Of course, that is a ridiculously personal way to start a book review. But Dexter’s ability to be personal, and to provoke a personal reaction, is what makes his writing so noteworthy. In this, a collection of newspaper columns and other short pieces from such varied sources as the Sacramento Bee, the Philadelphia Daily News, Esquire, and Redbook, National Book Award-winning writer Dexter explores stories as wild and characters as varied as you’d think only the most imaginative fiction could produce. Dexter not only knows people with names like Low Gear and Minus, but they know him. And they talk to him about such things as failed road trips to Florida, complete with jellyfish stings and beer drinking in the morning. Reading this book one short chapter at a time, you will travel from Florida to Philadelphia; from Dexter’s back porch, where he is visited by a stray cat, to the scene of ABC newsman Bill Stewart’s murder in Nicaragua. You will, along with Dexter, be witness to the gentlest of human moments (many of which involve Dexter’s wife and daughter) as well as the harshest (some again involving Mrs. Dexter, but more notably those which involve more criminal elements, including shootings, murders, and men named things like Dog Boy, who “says he is reformed. Doesn’t have sexual intercourse with dogs anymore.”).
The book is not organized chronologically, nor are the sources for any of these 83 pieces given. Dexter’s insouciance regarding that choice is also noteworthy; when discussing with his editor Rob Fleder whether or not to track down the dates of these columns, they come to this conclusion: “[W]hen we saw what obtaining these dates entailed, we simultaneously acknowledged that what we really needed was not the dates of publication, but an inviolate, inarguable, incurable reason for not having the dates of publication.” Don’t worry. They find a reason, and leave the dates out.
The stories are engrossing, the writing is spectacular, and the (lack of) organization is refreshing. But what truly shines in Paper Trails is the author and his worldview. Dexter himself was severely beaten in a Philadelphia bar in 1981 (resulting in his losing teeth and suffering a broken back) because its denizens did not care for one of his columns about their world, most likely because it was honest. Like many of the people he’s written about, he does not pull his punches. He may be most well-known for his popular and award-winning novels (The Paperboy and Paris Trout among them), but long before he wrote fiction, he was telling stories, and compelling ones at that.
In the foreword, Pete Hamill notes that “journalism, as all journalists know, is an imperfect craft that can sometimes become art.” The craft may be imperfect, but in this collection, at least, Dexter’s practice of it is perfection itself.
Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which are Not about Marriage by Pete Dexter