By Pete Dexter
308 pages; $23
Former journalists seldom write novels celebrating the newsrooms they left behind. Pete Dexter certainly hasn't.
A former reporter and columnist in Philadelphia and elsewhere, Dexter is a master storyteller and stylist. His earlier novels, including the heralded "Paris Trout" and the underappreciated "Brotherly Love," poke in unsettling ways at the human underside. In "The Paperboy," Dexter aims his grim lens straight at the newsroom.
On the surface, "The Paperboy" is a conventional mystery yarn. Ward James, a Miami investigative reporter, returns to his hometown, where his father runs the local newspaper, to revisit a notorious murder case. The sheriff has been slain, and a brutish swamp dweller is being railroaded, perhaps unjustly, toward the death penalty for the killing.
Accompanied by Charlotte Bless, a carnal spirit who's fallen in love — by mail — with the convicted killer, James and his hotshot partner, Yardley Acheman, sweep into town, rip into the half-baked case and produce an exposé.
But the plot darkens. A rival reporter connives to expose the exposers. Amid ensnaring webs of sex, violence and deception, moral ambiguity reigns. Like the police work, the reporting is tainted by shady practices — anonymous sources who may not exist, lies spread to get interviews, secret tapings, broken confidentiality promises.
This is, of course, fiction, but it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Dexter intends "The Paperboy" as an allegory. Characters seem to speak as prototypes.
There's the father-publisher, representing the decent but cautious Old Guard: "He had defied public opinion for as long as he had been in northern Florida..but he had gone about it with a wink. The paper was liberal, but in a hopeless and harmless way that was designed not to offend."
¡here's the despicable Acheman, Brazen Ambition personified: "He had no interest in facts. It was a shortcoming for a newspaperman..but he never saw it himself."
"All we've got to substantiate here is reasonable doubt," Acheman tells his reporting partner. "We get into too much detail, it ruins the narrative flow."
There's even an editor, the Faceless Bureaucrat eager to shove the exposé into the paper before it's ready.
èhen there's Ward James, the Dutiful Reporter, implacably earnest, and destined to pay dearly. "At the bottom of it, [Ward] wanted to know what had happened and to get it down that way on paper. He wanted to have it exactly right."
But Ward's fidelity and innocence are quickly crushed.
"What if they used us?" he asks his brother, who narrates the book.
"What if we used them?" the brother replies. "That's the game, isn't it? You use them, they use you..."
"It isn't always like that," Ward responds. Then, the narrator adds, "He thought a moment, perhaps trying to remember a case when it wasn't."
Dexter is a deft plotter, strewing so many false fronts and double-crosses that, in the end, unanswered questions linger over every major episode. Who really killed the sheriff? Why is a main character viciously beaten? Do crucial sources exist? What causes a central character's death?
We're never certain, and the novel's message seems unmistakable: In journalism, truth itself can be irrelevant. A story creates new realities so powerful they smother whatever originally happened.
The odious convicted killer expresses the cynicism most balefully, toying with the reporters over his alibi. Was it true? they ask him.
" 'You said it was true,' he says. 'It was in the newspaper that it was true.'
"Slowly, [he] began to smile. 'It was in the paper,' he said again. 'How could it be a lie?' " l