Pete Dexter


"Train"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 5, 2003)

"The world is a hungry place, man…And whatever kind of thing you is, there's something out there that likes to eat it. It's natural. That's how the world keeps tidy."

 

Pete Dexter's noir fiction brings California in the 1950s to dark and sinister life, as he presents two grim, but ironically humorous plots. Miller Packard, a police sergeant with an eye for easy cash, is a man who enjoys high stakes golf games and does not hesitate to associate with questionable playing partners and opponents when he's "on his game." Sometimes gruffly kind to subordinates, he can turn violent in a minute if it suits his purpose or advances his notion of justice. Packard is called to investigate a brutal double murder and rape aboard the sailing vessel Georgia Peach in Newport Beach, a crime which echoes throughout the novel when he becomes involved with the young widow of the murdered owner.

Alternating with the story of Packard, his investigations, and his love life is the story of Lionel Walk, an 18-year-old black caddy at the exclusive Brookline Country Club. Lionel, known as Train, minds his own business, despite the skimming, shakedowns, and outright theft conducted by a crooked caddymaster and the thugs who are his henchmen and enforcers, who also happen to be fellow caddies. Conscientious and anxious to do a good job, Train is at the mercy of the world, a young man with a good heart who never seems to catch a break. Train first meets Packard when he caddies for him in a stakes golf game, privately nicknaming him "Mile Away Man," because "it seemed like… the man was someplace else half the time, like not everything was getting through." Though their paths (and their separate plots) touch occasionally, the two plots tend to operate in parallel for most of the novel, not coming together in any big way until the last fifty pages.

Dexter is particularly effective in bringing Train to life. He is basically a good person trying very hard to earn a living with the deck stacked against him, and the reader will gain immense sympathy for him. When he takes on the responsibility of caring for a blind, punch-drunk boxer, Plural Lincoln, toting him along on his jobs and sleeping at the boxing ring where Plural lives so he can keep an eye on him, the reader empathizes and hopes that this kindness will be rewarded, though Train himself believes that "things happened when they did, and sometimes you could do something about it, and mostly you couldn't." He admits that often he just tries to "get out of the way of things and let time move them along, the way it does."

Golfers will enjoy the lively accounts of games in which money changes hands, along with colorful descriptions of dress, mannerisms, and players' temperaments. A very fat player in pastel golf pants is described as having thighs that look like "children hiding in the curtains" when he walks. Exaggeration, absurdity, irony, and black humor, so often a feature of noir novels, are seen on almost every page. In one memorable scene, an old caddy drops dead on the green, and Train has to run on his badly broken toe to the clubhouse to get help. When he gets there, he is castigated first for using the wrong door. Then the bartender delays calling for help while he tries "to figure out if calling an ambulance for a caddy could get him in trouble." When Train limps back to the place where his fellow caddy has died, the fat man in pastel pants is complaining about the delay in the game. "Maybe next time we won't be sitting around forty-five minutes while somebody dies," he says, to which Miller Packard, also in the foursome, responds, "He looked like he was dying as fast as he could."

Brutal murders, beatings, rape, and all manner of violence set a frightening tone to the novel, which does not lessen when the police report to the crime scenes--they are as interested in filling their pockets and pilfering valuables as they are in wreaking vengeance on the "bad guys." Biased against blacks and not afraid to show it, they assume that killing black perpetrators will make no difference in the long run--and might save the city some money.

Although Dexter remains faithful to the third person narrative, he tailors his language and points of view to the specific plots he is developing. The action at the golf courses involving Train's life is told from a caddy's-eye view and is described in a deceptively plain-spoken and ungrammatical style. The details of that narrative reflect a caddy's values and opinions, especially of the "totes" for whom the caddies are carrying the bags. The club members' rampant bigotry, casual cruelty, disrespect, and complete disregard for the feelings of the caddies and grounds crew are vividly realized in dialogue which stings and insults. Packard's activities are related in more grammatical terms, though Packard is earthy and often uncritical in his observations. As the narrative switches from the exclusive Brookline country club to Darktown, where Train lives, the contrasts in lifestyles are obvious, though the venality and potential violence lurking in the hearts of men from both locations are obvious.

By turns exciting, suspenseful, and darkly humorous, this novel is also brutal, violent, and pessimistic. Train and Packard both profit when their lives come together, but no reader will be surprised by the outcome. As the author has made abundantly clear, "The world is a hungry place…and whatever kind of thing you is, there's something out there that likes to eat it." Despite the fine writing, lively dialogue, unique descriptions, and oddball characters, some readers may be put off by this bleak view of life and human nature.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 42 reviews

Read an excerpt from Train at USA Today

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"The Paperboy"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark JUN 24, 1999)

In 1965, Thurmond Call was the Sheriff of Moat County and had been since before our 20 year old narrator, Jack James, was born. Sheriff Call "even by Moat County standards, had killed an inappropriate number of Negroes in the line of duty" not being clear what he was allowed to do and not do. In fact he was beginning to step over the line of excusable behavior when earlier that spring he had stomped a handcuffed man to death. This time the man was a drunk named Jerome Van Wetter, a relation of the poor white inbred family that lived in the swamps of the St. Johns River. It is known that the Van Wetter's take care of their own and thus when the sheriff was found gutted about 400 feet from his car on a county road, Hillary Van Wetter was quickly arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to death.

Our narrator picks up the story four years later when his brother Ward James with Yardely Acherman, investigative reporters for the Miami Times, are sent up to Moat County to look into the trial of Hillary Van Wetter. This new interest has been inspired by Charlotte Bless, an ex-post office worker, femme fatale in her late thirties, who is convinced of Hillary's innocence. She has gathered together boxes of newspaper clippings that make it very clear that this was not a fair, nor competent, trial. It is the job of Ward James and Yardely Acherman to piece together the story in a town reluctant to communicate, not even Van Wetter's family will talk.

This is an eerie, but beautiful work of fiction. Pete Dexter's writing style is concise and poetic. The imagery of the swamplands is so vivid you can feel the mosquito bites. The interviews with Hillary Van Wetter at the jailhouse rival those with Hannibal Lechter. On the surface it would be easy to simply label this a great mystery/suspense novel. But there is so much more. Obviously, it is about justice in a small southern town. But it's also about brothers and fathers and love. It is Jack's coming of age story and it's a story of hypocrisy and betrayal. And it is all set against the newspaper business where the search for truth is not always the same as that required for fame and prize-winning journalism. Nor is it always bearable.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 70 reviews

Read an excerpt from The Paperboy at Random House

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"Paris Trout"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple JUN 12, 2005)

"I'm not ashamed. I did what was right."

The National Book Award Winner from 1988, Paris Trout, based on a real murder and subsequent trial in Milledgeville, Georgia, is a tale of racism, abuse, bribery, injustice, and most of all, arrogance. Paris Trout, a white shopkeeper in Cotton Point, Georgia, makes his own rules, paying little attention to other laws as he sells used cars (on which the rust is hidden under new paint), terrorizes the black community into repaying loans with high interest, and uses trickery to avoid claims on the insurance policies he sells.

When the older brother of 14-year-old Rosie Sayers refuses to pay for a damaged car that Trout has sold and insured but will not fix, Trout and an accomplice decide to use him as an object lesson for the black community. Going to Henry Ray's home, Trout shoots little sister Rosie to death and leaves Mary McNutt wounded with four bullets. Surprisingly to Trout, he is put on trial, where witnesses are bribed and the outcome is uncertain, despite eyewitnesses. The crime, trial, and appeals take up the first half of the book, while the effects of the trial on his defense attorney, Harry Seagraves, the increasing madness of Trout, and the town's growing impatience with his behavior occupy the second half.

Dexter manages to give new life to a story of bigotry which has been told many times, creating in Rosie a particularly vulnerable and sad child, and in Harry Seagraves a lawyer who faces a crossroads--as a lawyer, husband, and man. Paris Trout, however, remains a bigoted stereotype, which reduces important aspects of the plot to "good guys" vs. "bad guys." Dexter's earthy tone creates an atmosphere that vibrates with emotion, however, and his brilliant selection of revealing details create innumerable symbols that develop the themes, poison being the most obvious--Rosie's poisoning by a rabid fox, Trout's wife's poisoning by abuse, and the town's poisoning by Trout's attitudes.

Dramatic, bloody, and horrifying, this novel shines a spotlight on life in a small southern town, which resembles a large snake—one that has been run over and "stuck to the highway with her own gum." As the town begins to free itself from Paris Trout, his power, and the attitudes he represents, the reader knows that Trout himself is only a symbol, that real change will take generations.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 38 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

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About the Author:

Pete DexterPete Dexter was born in Michigan in 1943. Dexter received a B.A. from the University of South Dakota before pursuing a career as a journalist. He has worked as a reporter and a columnist in Florida and Philadelphia and still writes a weekly syndicated column in Sacramento, California. He also writes regularly for major magazine including Esquire and Playboy. His book Paris Trout won the 1988 National Book Award and was adapted into an acclaimed film for cable television starring Dennis Hopper, Barbara Hershey and Ed Harris. Dexter is also a past winner of the Pen Center USA West award. He is the screenwriter for Mulholland Falls and he co-wrote the film, Michael, starring John Travolta, Andi MacDowell and William Hurt. He also wrote the movie Rush, a grim movie about undercover cops working as drug addicts who eventually become addicted to the drugs.

Pete Dexter lives on an island in the Puget Sound with his wife and daughter.
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