Now in Paperback: The Paperboy
by Pete Dexter
Random House, 2012
The arrival in theaters of Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel The Paperboy is something of a study in graduated evaluations. The director has the shameless treacle of Precious to live down, Matthew McConaughey must continue his climb out of romantic-comedy interchangeability and into the front rank of the leading-man A-list where he’s always belonged, and perhaps most of all, Zac Efron needs to slough off both the teen heart-throb trappings of High School Musical and the over-reaching silliness of The Lucky One, in which he played a grizzled and dangerous Iraq War vet (Efron is 5’5″ and weighs 110 pounds). Of all the movie’s principals, only John Cusack and Nicole Kidman can breathe easy: their quirky, commanding capability has been a defining aspect of their entire careers – all they need do in The Paperboy is vie for Oscar nominations.
Another fairly secure prominence of the film is occupied by Dexter himself, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Daniels) from his novel, which won a PEN Center literary award in 1996. The novel, Dexter’s fifth, takes place in steamy, muddy Moat County, Florida, where a brutal racist sheriff, who recently kicked to death a handcuffed prisoner, is found horribly murdered:
Thurmond Call was found lying on the highway early in the morning, in a rainstorm, a quarter of a mile from his cruiser. The engine had died but the wipers were still moving, in spasms, and his headlights were dim orange. The wide-mouthed jar that he carried between his legs as he drove to receive his tobacco juice was sitting on the roof. He had been opened up, stomach to groin, and left for dead.
(We never see the attack or the gruesome death, and yet, thanks to Dexter’s sly virtuosity, we do: the dead engine, the spasming wipers, the gaping mouth of the jar – the whole scene is dramatized in the details of its aftermath).
A seedy local, Hillary Van Wetter (cousin to the murdered man), is arrested for the crime and sentenced to the electric chair. While he awaits his fate, he exchanges letters with a woman named Charlotte Bless. He’s never met her before, but she’s convinced of his innocence – and she helps to convince the ‘paperboys’ of the book’s title, Yardley Acheman and Ward James of the Miami Herald (the novel is narrated by Ward’s younger brother Jack), who commence investigating Van Wetter’s alibi and interviewing all the interested parties in all the swampy backwaters of Moat County – including Wetter himself in his jail cell. It doesn’t take long for deep disillusionment to set in, voiced loudly by Acheman:
“He isn’t going to give a shit,” Yardley said. “The lawyer doesn’t give a shit. Hillary Van Wetter doesn’t give a shit … We got too many people here, Ward, that don’t give a shit.” He thought about it, still sitting up in the seat. “The truth is, I don’t give much of a shit any more myself.”
Yardley stopped and considered what he’d just said, perhaps how it would sound if it somehow got back to the editors in Miami.
“I mean, what am I supposed to write?” he said. “I picture myself at the typewriter, trying to interpret this person to the reader, and I don’t have a damn feeling in my body about him except if he wasn’t the one who opened up the sheriff, he was probably out that night fucking owls.”
It had long been Yardley’s premise that his obligation was to interpret for the reader.
This is as clear an extra-narrative dig as Dexter ever allows himself at more florid (and perhaps better-selling) authors, and The Paperboy does little interpreting for its readers, presenting them instead with a stark and largely nobility-free narrative of human evil and libido and leaving them to fend for themselves – much as he did in his 1988 National Book Award-winning novel Paris Trout, in which even the nominal hero is guilty of an enormous wrong. “There are no intact men,” narrator Jack tells us at the conclusion of The Paperboy, and certainly that’s the case in Dexter’s bleak fiction. Whether or not this writer – and this director, and this cast – can translate that into anything today’s bleak-averse audiences will want to see is the challenge of the new movie. Either way, readers should rejoice in any prospect of Dexter’s prose reaching a wider audience.