Considering how many reporters yearn to write fiction, it’s odd how few contemporary novels there are about the newspaper business. Are most newspeople simply kidding themselves? There’s little doubt that any reporter who wrote honestly about what goes on inside the newsroom of the average metropolitan daily — the conflict between ambition and ethics, the insidious process by which lies and half truths can leak into print and become ”facts,” and the press’ lynch mob solidarity in the face of outside scrutiny — would become a pariahamong his or her colleagues.
Judging by The Paperboy, Pete Dexter, author of the National Book Award-winning novel Paris Trout, is quite willing to become one. The syndicated columnist and former Philadelphia Daily News reporter has turned in a darkly comic tale dramatizing the odd and troublesome symbiosis between a pair of zealous Miami investigative reporters and their sources: a man perhaps wrongly sentenced to die in Florida’s electric chair, an alluring death-row groupie determined to prove his innocence; and the swamp-dwelling, alligator-poaching clan from whence the condemned man came.
The way many in rural north Florida saw it, the victim needed killing anyway. By 1965, when The Paperboy takes place, Sheriff Thurmond Call ”had, even by Moat County standards, killed an inappropriate number of Negroes in the line of duty.” But it was Call’s stomping to death of a handcuffed white man named Van Wetter that led to his own demise. Soon afterward, the sheriff was found lying in a country road not far from his patrol car, disemboweled like an alligator.
Within a week, deputies had grabbed up the handcuffed man’s cousin, Hillary Van Wetter. Despite what Miami Times reporters Ward James and Yardley Acheman later believe is a startling lack of evidence, Van Wetter was quickly convicted of the sheriff’s murder and sentenced to die.
All that serves as prologue to the story itself, narrated by Jack James, the awed younger brother of one of the two star reporters. Ward James has come home to Moat County in hopes of exposing the Van Wetter conviction and sentence as a miscarriage of justice. And because Ward and Yardley Acheman have both lost their driver’s licenses due to DWI offenses, Jack hires on as their chauffeur and general factotum.
Like every other heterosexual male in the vicinity, Jack soon finds himself in thrall to an unusual ally, Charlotte Bless, a New Orleans postal worker who has come to Florida to prevent Van Wetter’s execution. Having fallen in love with the condemned man through a newspaper photo, Charlotte has convinced herself of his innocence. In fact, it was her voluminous collection of police statements, trial transcripts, and highlighted newspaper stories that had persuaded the two Miami reporters to begin their inquiry.
”If nothing else comes of all this,” Acheman assures his partner at one point, ”we’ve got a strange story here about a girl who falls in love with killers.” But their story is potentially much bigger. They know that if they convincingly establish Van Wetter as a victim of redneck injustice, they could have a Pulitzer Prize winner. Thus, there’s a considerable temptation to cut corners: ignore small inconsistencies, fudge a fact or two, sleep with sources — all the big and little sins that journalists are prone to. Unlike the paragons of virtue on C-SPAN talk shows, Dexter’s reporters also have dirty little secrets of their own to hide. And when things go awry, neither they nor their editors are any more eager than the average crooked politician or corrupt cop to come clean and take the consequences.
The Paperboy is anything but a perfect novel. Dexter’s characters are a bit thin, and nobody will confuse his evocation of time and place with William Faulkner’s. But it’s a wise and fascinating tale well told. B+