Lots of big-city papers in the New Journalism era had "local columnists" like Pete Dexter pounding the beat in crumbling neighborhoods and coming back with human-interest pieces, written up like short stories. The reportage collection Paper Trails: True Stories Of Confusion, Mindless Violence, And Forbidden Desires, A Surprising Number Of Which Are Not About Marriage brings together 70 terse, colorful Dexter columns, most written on deadline for the Philadelphia Daily News, and fans of Dexter's pungent American Gothic novels should recognize his usual cast of drunks, dreamers, and scofflaws. Even those who don't know Dexter's work could do worse than to start with Paper Trails, which develops quickly into a mosaic of hard lives and the man who sentimentalizes them.
Paper Trails' most telling pieces aren't the ones about bar bets gone wrong or epic cross-country benders, but the ones where Dexter writes about his wife and daughter, and their bad luck with housepets. In a sense, Dexter has become a domesticated wild man, reduced to peeking through his fingers at the kind of people he used to be. Which may explain why he often shuts up and lets them do the talking. In the best Paper Trails pieces, he arrives on the scene and promptly disappears into the background, enjoying the natural wit of people trying to explain what a stabbing victim said to them, or why they don't need help with their overheating engine, or how drinking too much beer kept deadly poison at bay long enough for an emergency team to save their life.
Organizationally, Paper Trails is a mess. None of these stories carries a note on where or when it was first published, and pieces from Dexter's Philadelphia days sit side by side with pieces he wrote after he left that city—on the heels of a near-fatal barroom beatdown—and moved out west to enjoy the fruits of his second career. But figuring out what fits where is part of the Dexter experience. Almost all of these stories only run for a couple of tight, writerly pages before reaching a concluding line or two that inspires an "Oh, so that's what that was all about."