Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Paper Trails by Pete Dexter








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Pete Dexter’s latest book, Paper Trails, is perfect to have around when you don’t have a lot of time to read. This collection of 82 of his newspaper columns allows a reader to appreciate his masterful writing in small doses. Where Dexter excels is in capturing character and personality in a few words or phrases. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 4, pp. 12-14:


The last I’d heard of Low Gear and Minus, one of them had shot the other one in the leg, trying to kill a pig that they’d raised from a baby in their backyard in Florida. “That scream,” Low Gear had said later, “it sounded so human.”

The plan was for the pig to end up bacon. Like most things Minus and Low Gear touch, the pig ended up in the want ads, damaged but alive, and Minus and Low Gear ended up sellers in a buyers’ market and lost $60, not counting labor and the medical bills. It didn’t do much for the friendship, either.

A month after Minus stopped limping, though, he and Low Gear bought a rug-shampoo business. They found it in the want ads. It came with shampoo, a shampoo machine, a 1968 Ford van with “Flash Rug Cleaners” written on both sides and a list of twenty-five loyal clients who, Low Gear said, were “warrantied not to see dogshit on their feet before they halfway to the kitchen.”

They felt so good about going into business again that they decided to take a vacation. They loaded an undetermined number of cases of Busch beer into the van, found some hopeless teenage drug addicts with names like Jennifer and Stephanie, and headed south for Key West.

Low Gear had found the girls, and Minus studied them in the rear-view mirror. “Nobody back there is married, is it?” he said.

Minus had been shot twice in his life, and now there were two things he was afraid of, married women and pigs. He had been married once himself, and sometime, if the right song was on the jukebox and he had enough beer in him, he’d tell Low Gear that he still loved her.

Low Gear used teenagers and never told Minus a thing. And after the drinking was over, Minus always felt a little ashamed and wished Low Gear would confess something too.

The boys never made it to Key West.

They stopped just short at the Saddle Bunch Keys. By the time they got there, it was the middle of the morning and two cases of beer were gone. The empty cans rolled across the floor every time Minus pulled the van over for somebody to go to the bathroom. One of the girls thought they sounded like church bells.

They found a spot on one of the beaches. Low Gear had to carry the cooler because Minus said it hurt his leg to put weight on it. The girls sat in shallow water, feeling the sand moving, and every now and then one of them would scream, “I’m falling.”

Low Gear and Minus stayed close to the beer for an hour, and then Low Gear got up to swim. It was a clear, calm day, and he swam a long way out and a long way back. He was about a hundred yards offshore when the jellyfish got him.

The tentacles went around his hand and arm, they touched his neck. He’d never been hit by a jellyfish before and he was surprised how much they stung. He was more surprised a minute later when he noticed it was getting harder to breathe.

There were other people on the beach, and some of them had seen it happen. By the time Low Gear got his feet on the bottom, several of them were waiting there to rub sand into his arms and neck.

By that time Low Gear was weak and dizzy and white. He was bent Over the arm, fighting a middle-aged woman for his hand. “The only way to get the sting out is to urinate on it,” she said. “Really, it is.”

Low Gear was pulling for his air now, it sounded to the woman like he was crying. “I know it hurts,” she said, “but the thing is to urinate right on the burns. . .”

The beer can on Minus’s chest fell over and woke him up. He shaded his eyes and saw a small crowd walking Low Gear up from the water.

He fell twice getting there, and when he looked into Low Gear’s eyes, they weren’t focusing. “What the hell?” he said.

The woman said, “A jellyfish stung him. The only thing that helps is either vinegar or somebody has to urinate on it. . .“ Minus leaned in to help him and Low Gear talked in his ear.

“I’m in allergic shock,” he said, “and someplace around here there is a woman who keeps trying to piss on my arm.”

One of the teenagers drove the van across Seven-Mile Bridge to Mar­athon, where the hospital was. Flat out, eighty-five miles an hour, dodg­ing traffic. She never blinked until she got there, and then she passed out.

Low Gear was dying and he knew it. Minus was holding him against his shoulder in the front seat, and slowly, Low Gear made a sentence. “You tell . . . if this doesn’t work out . . . you tell Mona . . .”

The van was off the bridge and coming to the emergency room en­trance, still going eighty-five miles an hour. Minus leaned closer. “What?” he said. “Tell me who the fuck is Mona . . .”

Low Gear said, “Tell Mona . . .” and went to sleep.

The emergency room doctor and two nurses ran outside to get him. They’d run inside a second before that when they’d seen a Flash Rug Cleaners van coming at them sideways, forty miles an hour.

They gave him oxygen and put adrenaline into his chest, and Low Gear lived. He spent the night in intensive care, and the doctor told him that being drunk had probably slowed down the allergic reaction and saved his life.

In the morning they let him go. He walked across the parking lot to a 7-Eleven store and bought a six-pack of Busch, and was half through it when the van pulled into the parking lot.

The girls were asleep in the back. Minus drove back over the Seven-Mile Bridge, and they stopped for a while and looked at the pelicans. “Tell me something,” Minus said. “Tell me, who was Mona?”

Low Gear looked at him and smiled. “You know what the doctor said?”

“No, what?”

Low Gear reached back into the cooler and found a cold beer. “He said this shit saved my life.”


There are doxens more columns like this one in Paper Trails, each one a pleasure to read.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2007



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*    2007 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2007 issue of Executive Times


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