The Paperboy by Pete Dexter
328 pages, Dell Publishing, New York. $11.95
Review score: ***1/2 out of *****

Good writing is such a pleasure to read. I was reminded of this when I read Pete Dexter's book The Paperboy. I had just finished reading Protektor when I started The Paperboy, so the contrast between Charles Platt's workman-like writing and Pete Dexter's art was striking. Not only does Dexter have an elegant writing style, but is characters feel like they have been drawn from life, rather than created in fiction.

"In August of the Year 1965, a man named Thurmond Call, who had, even by Moat County standards, killed an inappropriate number of Negroes in the line of duty, was killed himself between the towns of Lately and Thorn, along a county road which runs parallel to and a quarter mile west of the St. Johns River in northern Florida."

Thurmond Call was the Moat County sheriff and the last man he killed was white. A man named Jerome Van Wetter. The Van Wetter family lived by the swamps and had intermarried for years. They were famous for their violence and larceny, and Hillary Van Wetter was arrested, tried and convicted of the capitol murder of the Sheriff.

Moat County, Florida, encompasses the town of Lately and Thorn. The story in The Paperboy is told by Jack James, who is twenty and is working for his father's newspaper company driving a delivery truck, after being expelled from the University of Florida. Jack's older brother, Ward, is a newspaper reporter on the rise who writes for the Miami Times. Ward comes to Moat county to investigate the murder of Sheriff Call and the trial of Hillary Van Wetter. The trial had all the hallmarks of small town justice - incompetent defense, lost evidence and an inbred bureaucracy. The case had been brought to Ward's attention by Charlotte Bless, a woman who made a habbit of writing to convicts on death row.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the characters and story in The Paperboy would have degenerated into cliche and stereotype. But even the minor characters in The Paperboy have life and believability. Nor is this a simple story of the cursading reporter defeating the forces of southern injustice. As in life, this story is much more complicated.

For some reason, there seems to be a thread of darkness in southern writing. William Styron and Tennessee Williams come to mind, for example. While the story Pete Dexter tells in The Paperboy is not as dark as Styron's tales, the ending is not simple and we know from the first page that something has happened to the reporter Ward James. But rather than dragging the reader down into darkness and depression, the sadness in The Paperboy reflects the sadness that exists in life.

Ian Kaplan - 3/96

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