Paper Trails, released in hardcover in 2007 (but never released in paperback and now inexplicably and too soon out of print) collects columns written mostly in the 1970s and primarily for The Philadelphia Daily News and The Sacramento Bee. Dexter’s columns evince a keen eye for people wronged by the system, and in them he slays corrupt cops, sleazy lawyers, and crooked politicians deftly with his pen. At times, he steps back from the finely tuned outrage to paint an urban portrait of the aftermath of a parade or an old drunk in a corner bar.
Other columns are downright silly. He devotes plenty of ink to animals, his cats and dogs mostly, but there was also his memorable encounter with a peahen. He also used thousands of column inches to mercilessly tease his wife, the foil for his antics.
Known for haunting Philadelphia’s boxing gyms, Dexter’s pugilistic bent extends to his writing. In the introduction to Paper Trails, he explains that he had little interest in collecting his columns in the first place, writing that the 82 columns and articles in the collection will lack dates and any indication as to where they first
appeared because, basically, he and his editor Rob Fleder didn’t want to dig up the information.
The end of Dexter’s newspaper career is as legendary as the columns he wrote. In December 1981, Dexter went to a bar in the Devil’s Pocket neighborhood of South Philadelphia to try to clear the air with some employees there who had complained about a column he wrote. Punches were thrown and Dexter left. He later returned to the bar with friend and local boxer Tex Cobb. They were ambushed by 12 men wielding tire irons and baseball bats. Cobb had his forearm broken, an injury that would end his career. Dexter was beaten nearly to death, suffering a
broken back and pelvis.
The incident was essentially the end of Dexter’s career as a newspaperman. He would eventually leave Philadelphia and start a career as a novelist and screenwriter that has brought him a new level of acclaim. His third novel, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1988.
I live in Philly and if Pete Dexter were still writing for The Philadelphia Daily News, I’d be a subscriber. Instead, the paper and its sister publication The Philadelphia Inquirer (now under the same struggling ownership as the Daily News) offer (with a few exception) columnists that promise a mix of lightweight fare and mock outrage.
Most egregiously, these include political polarizers like Bush’s torture justifier John Yoo and former Senator Rick Santorum.
There are many reasons why columnists like Pete Dexter are a thing of the past, and Paper Trails lets us know what we’re now missing.