I’m not sure how I came about this book. I think my wife, Gail, picked it up at a library book sale knowing that I had already enjoyed Train. She may have remembered that Dexter was famous for his book Paris Trout. Or maybe she just knows me. I don’t think she’s read any books by Pete Dexter and I don’t think I’ll be able to convince her to do so.
Why? Well, I just don’t think Gail has the same fascination that I do with family carnage. I use the term carnage loosely. I don’t mean that I enjoy stories about killing families. I use the term to describe stories about breakdowns in familial relationships that are often more painful than death because they are so insidious.
For some reason, in my estimation, this makes for a good story. I can’t explain it. What’s enjoyable about a family breaking down? I don’t know. Maybe it isn’t enjoyable. This could be the wrong word to use. Maybe engrossing is a better word to describe my involvement with books like this. Or maybe I should say I’m engaged; that may better describe it.
I remember it starting in college when I read Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in a lit class. I was amazed by it. Then I saw the play about a decade ago and I was blown away. The acidity and enmity of these two people towards each other was mesmerizing. So now, a few times a year, I engage in some carnage. The Paperboy was certainly along these same lines, although a little less so and therefore much more readable then the other books I’ve labeled as such.
The word paperboy in this book, I think, could refer either collectively to the four male protagonists or individually to the narrator, Jack James. Jack is the youngest son of a local newspaper scion in a rural Florida town. Jack is kind of a screw-up, but a good kid; he drives one of the delivery trucks for his dad. Contrast this to Jack’s brother Ward, who is one half of a famous investigative reporting duo for the Miami Times, the other half being a gentlemen named Yardley Acheman.
Bothers Jack and Ward are brought together when Ward and Yardley make a visit to the small town where Jack lives with his dad. They are there to investigate the murder of the local sheriff and the subsequent conviction of the perpetrator. Jack is hired as their driver and errand boy. The dysfunction occurs within the Ward family, between the distant dad and the two son’s. Therein lies the soul of this story, but there’s a lot more that makes this story great.
** SPOILER ALERT **
As the relationship with their father grows more distant and the complications in the investigation become greater, the brother’s relationship solidifies and grows. It’s a beautiful thing to see and provides a hopeful backdrop.
If this family relationship is the soul of the story, then the heart of the story is the daily recounting of the paperboy’s search for the facts in the murder of the local sheriff. To me, it’s even more timely and interesting because it’s a discussion of the morality, ethics, and value of investigative journalism, a pursuit that is under fire now more than ever as the newspaper industry continues its decline. I come across articles daily, asking where we, as a society, are going to get this style of reporting if all of the newspapers go bankrupt.
Dexter takes this topic to its endgame. The paperboy’s investigation leads to a story, the story leads to a Pulitzer for Ward and Yardley, then the Pulitzer leads to an investigation of the original story by a rival Miami paper. Ironic, because the investigative reporter for the rival paper once worked for the Miami Times. In fact, she idolized Yardley before he made a mockery of her by pushing her into a pool in front of all the bigwigs at the newspaper’s celebration of the Pulitzer. It’s a great twist.
And I don’t use the word twist loosely. Dexter’s writing contains a host of twisted characters who do some twisted things in some damn twisted scenes, usually involving violence and sex. It’s dark, so you have to like a little darkness to embrace Dexter. But it’s that darkness that makes the relationship between the brothers that much brighter.
Great book, which I’m classifying as lit because I want to. I don’t think it fits into popular fiction.