- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 17, 2007

There have been few columnists who wrote on the dark side and walked on the wild side the way Pete Dexter did.

There also have been few columnists who wrote with such skeletal eloquence.

Mr. Dexter, a winner of the National Book Award and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and the Sacramento Bee before he took to writing movie scripts, is the kind of man who’d get into a bar fight in Philadelphia’s grim “Dirty Pocket” sector, get some teeth knocked out and return with a heavyweight boxer friend for a second round. That time he got his back and pelvis broken.

It didn’t discourage him from digging into other dirty pockets buried in people and places. The columns collected in “Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence and Forbidden Desires” roam a bleak and often cruel landscape that demonstrates the writer’s capacity for compassion and a barely controlled anger.

It is the kind of deeply rooted anger that seeps through columns as admirable for their terse prose as they are haunting in content. They introduce readers not only to Mrs. Dexter, a woman who commands respect and awe for being able to cope with Mr. Dexter, but to a dog called McGuire and a cat called Mother, both of which probably appealed to the author because they were his kind of maverick.

Mr. Dexter does not sound like an easy man to live with, as his wife apparently discovered the day she married him. He described that in a column about his sixth wedding anniversary:

“The way I remember it,” he begins, “six years ago on a hot miserable sticky Friday afternoon, I walked into a bank in New Jersey with a date, and a man I didn’t know or like, who had gravy stains on his clothes, asked us if we would love, honor and obey each other forever. The man was the president of the bank and the mayor of the town and according to the laws of New Jersey, he was entitled to marry us.

“The way my wife remembers it … I promised to love, honor and obey her forever and then disappeared until six o’clock the next morning.”

Mr. Dexter responds to criticism by pointing out that he’d only been married two hours and his wife was already trying to take his Friday nights away.

That tells you a lot about Mr. Dexter, as does the column in which his 8-year-old daughter asks how a chicken lays an egg. He notices that Mrs. Dexter has just come home with a bag of groceries, including eggs, and chases the girl around the house until he can push an egg down the back of her pants — to demonstrate how chickens do it.

Mrs. Dexter is understandably furious, yet you get the impression that Mrs. Dexter (and there are hints that there may have been more than one long suffering wife) is well capable of standing up to Mr. Dexter and, if necessary, fighting him to a standstill.

And then there is the column about Mother the cat, who came out of the woods and stayed despite Mr. Dexter’s half-hearted effors to get rid of her. Not only did she stay, but she gave birth to five kittens, at which time Mr. Dexter apparently became a reluctant foster father and worried about them. And he saw the kittens become victims of predators — led by a hawk with a five-foot wingspan.

He saw “the shadow, the sound of the hawk’s wings, pine needles and dust blowing off the ground” as the last kitten “half again the size of a mouse” was snatched from its mother’s grasp and carried across the lake in the talons of the hawk.

And he recalls how the cat “searched his face then came up on her hind legs, asking for her kitten back.” When he went to get her milk, she cringed from his shadow and that was what he lay awake thinking about.

“The man had lost things that had mattered before,” observes Mr. Dexter, “and he knew what it was to cringe at sudden shadows, the ones that drop on you out of the sky.”

He reverts to caustic humor in his account of how McGuire was found as an Easter puppy, chosen because he was “rolling in mud and grabbing at pant legs.” On the way home, McGuire bit the tops off the flowers bought as a peace offering for Mrs. Dexter. Once established, he tore up the carpet, knocked pans off walls and left teeth marks everywhere. Oddly enough, it was Mrs. Dexter who calmed McGuire down by letting him sleep in her bed.

These columns often bear a harsh wisdom. Mr. Dexter is one of the few writers who can rant, without a wasted word, on the injustice of the O.J. Simpson murder verdict or the bitter irony of a manslaughter charge brought against a man who shot a burglar he caught on his own property. Mr. Dexter can discourse tongue-in-cheek on the potential for violence in a chess game.

Yet he becomes poignant when he writes about the difficult lives of jockeys:

“For an exploited minority — consider being loved only for a borrowed horse — jockeys seem like happy people, especially when you consider growing up to weigh 108 pounds.”

Then he adds a memorable epitaph:

“Some of them are still kids. Some of them have faces that have been almost erased, like old statues.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.

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