Dexter on journalism: moral dilemma of news

January 29, 1995|By Dion Thompson

"The Paperboy," by Pete Dexter, New York: Random House, 307 pages, $23.

"There are no intact men." Those are the final words in this fast-moving novel of newspaper life. Characters who started out whole end up broken by sexual violence, abandonment, a sense of being out of sync with life. Those already broken are further damaged.

This is an oddly disturbing story about the nature of journalistic truth, and the price people pay for the choices they make. Mr. Dexter, a former newspaperman and winner of the National Book Award for "Paris Trout," explores deep moral issues in "The Paperboy," but at a distance.

Things are left unsaid, intimations of homosexuality and gay bashing left unexplored, even though the book is rife with sexual undertones. The emotional distance is disappointing. And because of this, the novel falls short.

It is a first-person narrative, told through the eyes of Jack James. "The Paperboy" is not his story. He is merely the one left to tell the tale of his brother, Ward, half of a famous investigative team working for the Miami Times.

The team's arrival sets the narrative in motion. Worlds collide. Journalism's high-minded ethics collide with ambition and desire for glory. This forms a major sub-theme of "The Paperboy."

There is an old adage in journalism -- Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. But what if the story lacks one fact, the linchpin that pulls it all together?

There has been a murder in Moat County. The brutal, yet respected and feared sheriff is found cut open on the road. Everyone says it is a revenge slaying. One member of a creepy clan of white swamp rats is arrested, convicted and sentenced to die.

The paperboys begin their investigation.

Violence, sometimes overt, accompanies every trip into the swamps. the Van Wetters are a mean, incestuous clan. The men appear naked, half-naked, unashamed. They beat their children mercilessly. They treat their women as chattel. But did one of their own kill the sheriff?

Old fashioned shoe-leather reporting, the forte of Ward James, brings the reader close to the answer. Then details get in the way. That doesn't bother Ward's partner, Yardley Acheman. Ward, however, is left with unnerving questions. He goes over the details like a dog who can't leave a bone. But his search is pointless: The top editors at the Miami Times circle the wagons, stand behind the story.

The story is done. It is time to move on.

Jack uses a wonderfully accurate description of journalism in a failed attempt to prod his brother. "It's like fishing," he says. "You really aren't up to it if you start out worried about the worm."

Hillary Van Wetter, the convicted killer, dramatizes the irony when Ward asks him about the story: "It was in the paper," says Van Wetter, offering a sly evasion. "How could it be a lie?" Mr. Dexter knows the compromises of daily journalism. That part of his book rings true. But huge questions cry out for answers, explanations he does not pursue to a satisfying extent. In the end, Jack, the narrator, can only offer: "There are no intact men."

Dion Thompson, assistant chief of The Sun's Anne Arundel County Bureau, earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in comparative literature and writing at the University of Southern California and the University of California. A professional journalist for 12 years, he has been a reporter in Miami. Fla.., and Hartford, Conn., as well as working at The Sun.

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