Sunday, 14 June 2009

Re-Conning an Icon

Strictly speaking, I’m unqualified to review Pete Dexter’s new collection of “non-fiction” essays dubbed “Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which are Not About Marriage,” (Harper Collins, 2007). He used to hang out in Philly’s toughest bars, where inevitably he was ultimately really creamed.

I’ve never been in such a bar. Ever...Would you believe I’ve never been in a fist fight in my entire life! (Just a little bit of boxing in the Navy.) Blame Holy Rosary Academy and Sacred Heart Seminary. They turned me into a gutless Pacifist. My Ossi wife even calls me The Hopper, meaning a lily-livered bunny dedicated to avoid all physical confrontations. And she lived in a Police State for twenty-four years.

Except that I used to read Dexter religiously (like I do Steve Lopez these days, on Especially because, I think, looking back. Pete often gave me a vicarious sense of danger in reading him in the Daily News. And I reviewed, very enthusiastically, both “Paris Trout” and “Deadwood” for the late and often lamented (by me) “Welcomat”. Indeed, what in my heart of hearts I regard as the high point in my very spotty journalistic career was noodling with legendary News editor Gil Spencer, as I started to contribute Op Ed pieces to that tabloid. (I think Rich Aregood was much less thrilled than I was!)

And I learned loads about jazz from Nels Nelson, hanging out at that paper... (Rubbing noses with such a tabbie gave me a demotic sense of being closer to Walt Whitman, the hero of my American Lit course at Beaver College.) I got much less buzz from writing for the Inky and the Bulletin, the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Oakland Tribune (in those days when I was getting tired of teaching). The Daily News was and remains my favorite newspaper. With Signe and Stu, and Elm and Smirk. And in the old days Chuck Stone. But Pete Dexter was the goofy muse who really set me up for that literary love.

And so it pains me to be picky, picky about this collection. Even Pete Hamill’s introduction sounds more than a canonization proposal than one news junkie blurbing another’s similar addictions. And the idiotic way he and the editor, Rob Fleder, tried to make the other guy decide on which pieces to leave out. And the titleless essays, helter skeltered into no discernible pattern.

I have been concurrently reading the new collection of I.F. Stone’s journalism, where Izzie tells you how he started his (in)famous Weekly (he had just lost his last job at the New York Compass), how he and Esther went out dancing twice a week, and loved to terp their high class way across the Atlantic on their Queen Mary vacations. Odd addiction for two life-long Socialists. Pete is always trying so damn hard to be funny. But Izzie just loved living, free and easy. No big deal about it. And his pieces are organized by theme and chronology. (That perhaps brings out the me.)

Anyway, Pete has obsessive shticks, like always referring to his wife as Mrs.Dexter. So far as I can see, he’s only had one marriage, officially. As a running gag, it’s lower case Dexter. And that presumably saintly woman, the shit she must have begrudgingly put up with, like the time he stole her menstrual pads so he could tape his fists better for a bag workout at the gym, or when his daughter asked him how chickens and eggs worked, and he ended up dropping his visual aid down the back of Mrs. Dexter’s pants, with the “hilariously” sticky goo that ensued.

Or the feral crisis that ensued when a friend’s yard was invaded by a pushy swine from next door. But when he jokes about his wife’s tiny titties, I gorge. He doesn’t, God knows, have to be a perfect gentleman. But using the marital bed for cheap gags, well, makes me gag. One concludes that Pete never really perceived the boundary line between fiction and non-fiction. Or good and bad tastelessness for that matter. (I never ever had any such gripe about his honest to goodness fiction.)

When he creates the realities behind the police blotter, he does incomparable reporting. There was an aging Philly blue collar cop from the tough inner city who moves his young wife and new baby to the Greater Northeast to give his kid a better chance, but the local hoods gang up on him and kick him senseless.

Or the young working girl in Sacramento who picks her johns very, very carefully—until, pressed for cash, she lets a drug high young thug pick her up and he rapes her. Or an old boyfriend who breaks down the front door and clubs his ex-lover mercilessly while her young daughters watch, helplessly—and he gets away with it-- to Pete’s moral fury, through legal blather and a half-hour-long 911 response.

There is, needless to say, a softer sentimental side to Pete. When he’s talking about his Am Lit teacher at the University of South Dakota slowly catching on to his Cliff Notesiness, he’s a scream. When she later turns up with cancer, he’s no longer the tough guy. And if God ever gave an aspiring writer the gift of goofy relatives, he began with Pee Dee.

His Uncle Buck, who Caddied around North America with two pianos for his dual piano act, and ended up as Dave Garroway’s guest, when he got under the piano upside down and played “Mary Had a Little Lamb” like he was chinning himself. We worry a lot about deprived childhoods. Well, Pete transmuted his astonishingly long run of bad luck “at home” into lifelong running gags.

I always wondered why he didn’t go into syndication when he left the Daily News for Sacramento. This collection makes it clear why. That local “Bee” was always in his bonnet, when he wasn’t trying Mrs.Dexter’s angelic patience with his mutt McGuire, or complaining to his doctor about the cat his cable people taught to turn on the TV in the middle of the night, wrecking his sleep. Nuts.

But so was his You-knee-verse. One of a kind, too many say too casually. It fits PeTe to a capital T. (As I gave this book a final riffle, I noted its dedication: “For Millicent”.) Heh, come to think about it, with a name like that, I think I’d prefer “Mrs. Dexter”. My next book I will dedicate to Hilly, aka Hildegard.

Steve Lopez also is always talking about his wife and kids. But never for cheap guffaws. And his satire, like mocking the tightass Cardinal of L.A., Roger Mahoney, for his new expensive Cathedral--on skid row--as the Rog Mahal is pointed and to his point.

Lopez is an Icon you can’t con. Pete has made a career of cheap shots, not all of them very pertinent. He doesn’t grow on you the way Steve does. All this negative blather aside, I’m still sure I wouldn’t miss a Dexter piece—you never know when he’s going to hit a home run. So you put up with a lot of scratch singles, and even a few strike outs.

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