Second Look Books: The Paperboy by Pete Dexter (Random House, $23)

Pete Dexter is the justly praised author of “Paris Trout”, a novel that won for its author the coveted National Book Award, and that was made into a TV movie starring the creepy Dennis Hopper as Paris Trout himself. In “The Paperboy”, Dexter tackles the twinned themes of brotherhood and obsession in a not wholly successful fashion.

If “Paris Trout” dwelt at length on the dissociative personality of its main character, a man who had no ostensible relationship to the realities surrounding him, then it must be said that the major characters in “The Paperboy” are all either dissociative or sociopathic, leaving the novel itself not dark, as the publisher claims, but rather dim to the point of opacity.

The story focuses on a family of newspapermen. Ward James, an obsessed reporter for a Miami newspaper, and his younger brother Jack, expelled from the University of Florida, are the sons of the publisher of the Moat County Tribune, Moat being a fictional county in rural north Florida. Ward is Strange, hard driving and successful. Jack is adrift, delivering his father’s papers by truck to the outlying regions of their small hometown. The fulcrum of the plot is the return of Ward to his birthplace to investigate the years-old murder of former county Sheriff Thurman Call by Hillary Van Wetter, ferocious head of the redneck Van Wetter clan, a group of swamp rats notorious in the county for thievery and drunken nonsense. It seems that a local woman named Charlotte Bless has developed one of those well-known sexual itches for death row inmates like Hillary, an itch she believes can be scratched by proving the condemned man innocent, thereby setting him free.

And thus are brought together the disparate elements of this tale, two estranged brothers and a distance out-of-touch father, one gap-toothed bimbo in love with a man on death row and, what is supposed to pass in this novel as a “serious theme”, the business of journalism. “The Paperboy” is like a vast and beautifully painted Japanese house made of paper. In the first big wind it blows away.

First, the mystery of the murder collapses of its own weight. A big win is not really required. Second, the exploration of the character of Ward James through the device of a particularly nasty beating he endures remains rather unselfconsciously distant. Even brother Jack, whose broodings and recitations provide the focus of the novel, seems to wander in our midst like a disembodied ghost. And of course, there’s Charlotte Bless, who winds up in the arms of the freed Hillary Van Wetter, both of them back in the dirty swamp full of snakes and raccoons. This author asks his readers to believe in, and remain close to the motivation of Charlotte, despite her flighty and disreputable (though sexually compulsive) ways and means. In short, most of the characters in “The Paperboy” seem dissociative in one way or another, which makes for a pale and discouraging reading experience.

As for the “newspapering” theme, Dexter is a newspaperman himself, and, like Jack James in “The Paperboy”, sees the trade as an ennobling one, full of hard-won truths and moral profit. Sadly, though, “The Paperboy” eventually concedes that this is not really so, that like all callings in life, the trade is supported solely by the characters of those who peddle it.

Last, a word about style. Dexter can really write, no doubt about it. The first 50 pages of “Paris Trout” are utterly riveting, heart-stopping stuff, maybe the best an American has done in a generation. But “The Paperboy” is plagued by patches of dry aimlessness, and infested with my own personal bugaboo, the semi-colon. Here’s a dreadful example of bad editing: “I got up; he sat up.” (Pg.249)

“The Paperboy is a book that should be read because Pete Dexter is a serious novelist whose work stimulates the consciousness. But this is not his best.