Pete Dexter’s novel Paris Trout (1988) won a well-deserved National Book Award for its portrait of a villainous store owner and of the small Georgia town that turned a blind eye to his misdeeds. The Paperboy, which also has a small-town southern setting, is no less violent and no less preoccupied with evil than the earlier book. This time, however, Dexter’s focus is on the damage that well-intentioned people can do and, more specifically, the harm that can result from the journalistic pursuit of truth.
Like Paris Trout, The Paperboy has its murderous racist, Thurmond Call, the long-time sheriff of northern Florida’s Moat County. Yet The Paperboy actually begins four years after Sheriff Call’s death. Although over the years the community had tolerated his habit of killing black suspects and fugitives and was not particularly troubled when he stomped to death a drunk and quarrelsome white man, Jerome Van Wetter, the victim’s family was incensed. Unfortunately for Sheriff Call, the Van Wetters were a particularly lawless and malevolent lot. No one was surprised when, not long after Jerome Van Wetter’s demise, the sheriff’s disemboweled body was found on a Moat County highway. It was obvious that a Van Wetter had come out of the swamps to take revenge.
The chief suspect in the crime was a cousin of Jerome, Hillary Van Wetter, who was already famous for cutting off a policeman’s thumb after a routine traffic stop. Hillary was arrested, tried, and convicted, and as the novel begins, he is soon to be executed. At this point, a love-struck woman and two newspapermen from a liberal Miami paper become involved in the case.
The woman is motivated by an obsessive love. Charlotte Bless, formerly a postal worker, has made a habit of corresponding with jailed killers. Yet she had never become as infatuated with any of the others as she now is with Hillary. Quitting her job in New Orleans, she has brought her voluminous files and records to Florida, with the intention of procuring help for Hillary, getting him freed, and marrying him.
The two newspapermen do not have Charlotte’s blind faith. They have been sent to Moat County simply to look into the case, and like the good investigative reporters they are, both of them begin with open minds as to whether Hillary killed the sheriff. Although superficially they might seem alike, Yardley Acheman and Ward James do not have the same values, and it is this difference that in large part determines the course of the story and ultimately causes two deaths.
Yardley is totally motivated by self-interest. Journalism to him is a convenient route to fame and fortune—convenient because he is indeed a fine writer. Recognizing his talent, his newspaper routinely assigns Yardley to do the actual writing of any story on which he is working. Supposedly Yardley also helps with the investigation, but usually he just lazes about, sleeping with any attractive women whom he can manage to impress, until the information that someone else has collected is presented to him. Then he goes to work, weaving that raw material into polished, publishable copy. Yardley does not care very much about facts or truth. He is interested only in the words he writes and in what they can get him.
Yardley’s partner Ward James is quite different. Ward is uncompromisingly idealistic, convinced that the sole purpose of any newspaper is the pursuit of truth. So strong is his belief in his vocation that Ward will not only work hard to find the facts he needs but will even risk his life, not merely for a story but for one that is accurate and complete. Ward had once walked through a downed airliner, which might have exploded at any moment, in order to understand what the doomed passengers had experienced. Now Ward insists on venturing into the swamps to talk to the Van Wetter family, even though it has been made clear that if he bothers them, he may not come out alive.
If Dexter shows these two attitudes toward the profession of journalism as polar opposites, he also emphasizes the fact that they are not the only possible stances. Ward’s publisher father, too, has a compelling sense of duty. In a conservative, even backward area, he has systematically expressed his liberal views. Perhaps the reason people remain loyal to his newspaper is that they know how devoted W. W. James is to his community. That dedication to the general welfare explains W. W.’s uneasiness about any new investigation into the Call-Van Wetter case. Certain that the county is better off without both men, W....
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