One of the axioms of the newspaper game is that today's important, timely, well-crafted story is tomorrow's fishbone wrapping paper. In the case of Pete Dexter's superb "Paper Trails" (Ecco, 289 pages, $25.95), that self-deprecating journalistic adage is as valid as the old cartographer's axiom that "Beyond here be dragons."
Writing is hard. Writing well is harder. Writing well with a deadline is like juggling chain-saws or being led to the gallows: It wonderfully focuses the mind. It is evident in this remarkable collection of 82 stories that Mr. Dexter had, for many years, a wonderfully focused mind.
The simple clarity of his prose — precise, stark — is like an Edward Hopper painting translated from oil on canvas to ink on paper. It is American prose, clean and hard, and is frequently about terrible, dark subjects.
A woman is beaten by an old boyfriend, again, so she has trouble sleeping, as does her 8-year-old daughter, who witnessed the violence. A cat tries to protect one of her kittens from a hawk. A boy's puppy is run over by a garbage truck. A sailor camping on a beach is "disemboweled" by two thugs without motive. To avoid being evicted from her $95-a-week room, a 23-year-old hooker hits the streets, promising to have the $50 she still owes in two hours.
For all the individual tragedies, some major, some not, that Mr. Dexter wrote about, the weather vane of "Paper Trails" mostly points toward humor. A surprise here is that, although Mr. Dexter is one tough hombre, his very funny lines usually suggest gentleness and tolerance.
In one column, he tells of his cat being shot for no reason beyond thoughtlessness or meanness. When the vet put its leg in a cast, Mr. Dexter writes, "I could have broken legs myself." But he thinks about it for a while, and decides that "the justice in this world is that you don't have to break legs because somebody's broken yours. The justice is, what you are is what you become; all you have to do is wait."
He is impressed with the owner of a restaurant who put up a sign next to his all-you-can-eat buffet: "No throwing up."
Reminiscing about the time he saw a woman who rides with a member of the Hell's Angels, Mr. Dexter writes, "there were appearance problems here that even black boots and tattoos of snakes cannot correct, which I hope does not sound chauvinistic."
Mr. Dexter appears to have had more unusual and colorful experiences in his lifetime than you and I and our three best friends combined. He and a friend stop in a motel attached to a bar. When they walk into the room, "there was a body lying on the bed. The eyes and mouth were open, and there was dried blood on the teeth. We were younger and harder then," he recalls, so his friend walks over to the other bed, lies down, and says, "I think I'll take this one."
As with most columnists, there are quirks. Instead of referring to himself as "I," he often writes, "the man" and refers to his wife as "Mrs. Dexter." Many of the columns begin with a provocative opening line to draw the reader in and conclude with a bit of wisdom, a philosophical musing that attempts (usually successfully) to sum up the lesson of the day.
There are few shortcomings in "Paper Trails," which maintains a consistent quality rare in such collections. While most pieces are timeless, a few are topical and appending dates for context might have been useful, but the author and the editor admit to being too lazy to bother. Likewise, a much longer article about a 1982 murder is utterly compelling and, consequently, frustrating because we aren't given the result of the trial — a coda would have been welcome.
Every journalist in the world should have a copy of "Paper Trails" on the desk, along with a dictionary and Strunk and White's "Elements of Style." It won't make anyone a better writer, alas, but, as an example of how good it is possible to be, it may teach humility.
Mr. Penzler is the proprietor of the Mysterious Bookshop in Manhattan and the series editor of the annual "Best American Mystery Stories." He can be reached at [email protected].