By Pete Dexter
Random House, 307 pp., $23
'THERE are no intact men.'' So reads the last line of ''The Paperboy,'' Pete Dexter's scrappy novel, his fifth, set in the backwoods of northern Florida. (His third novel, ''Paris Trout,'' won the National Book Award in 1989.)
It's a sad line, but fitting, for this meandering tale of two brothers who get involved in trying to find out the real story of a man on death row. The effort leaves almost everyone damaged.
The older brother, Ward James, is half of a prizewinning team of investigative reporters. The ''nuts-and-bolts'' guy, he's the one who takes meticulous notes and believes that getting the details right will produce the truth. His spoiled partner, Yardley Acheman, on the other hand, is more interested in ''interpreting the story for the reader'' than he is about details.
The novel unfolds as a reminiscence by Ward's now-adult brother, Jack. In 1969, when the events took place, Jack was 20. He'd just lost his swimming scholarship, was driving a delivery truck for his father's newspaper, and accepted Ward's request to drive the two reporters around.
The three are joined by Charlotte Bless, a hot-blooded woman with a thing for men on death row. She wants them to get Hillary Van Wetter out of prison so she can marry him. Ward and Yardley, ever-ready to uncover a big story, take it on.
Hillary was convicted of the killing of a brutal sheriff, who had himself killed Hillary's cousin not long before. It looks like a case of mangled justice; evidence was lost, an alibi ignored. The town seems implacably against this ''most unpredictable and ferocious'' member of a despised swamp-trash family. No one, from the police department to Hillary's lawyer to his family seems to want to see the real story emerge. And the taunting, reptilian Hillary himself doesn't seem inclined to save his own skin either.
The effort of the ''paperboys'' (Hillary's contemptuous term for the reporters) to find out what happened takes them slogging through swamps to the isolated Van Wetter family. These are people who take up half a page of the phone book, and most marry each other. The best treatment they afford women is allowing them to wait, spoon in hand, till the men have their fill of ice cream. Otherwise, a current of sexual violence, both threatened and delivered, crackles around them.
The violence affects Ward as well. He's brutally beaten by drunken sailors. While he recovers in a hospital, Yardley obtains one last crucial piece of data, the first he's gotten alone. Yardley takes the story and rides solo with it. Ward is worried, for the story's sake. He unravels, and as publicity from the now-hot story glares down on sleepy Moat County, it unravels too.
The book explores how men communicate with each other -- or don't. The brothers pull closer throughout the story, contending not only with the troublesome case, but also with their taciturn father. Locked in his journalist's role, he's no good at communicating with the hospitalized Ward. ''Having been in the business of shorthand all his life -- of using certain words to evade other words that are easier or more politely left unsaid -- he could not find any words at all when it mattered.''
While this looks like a real guy book -- weird quest, brutal characters, ominous atmosphere, sometimes-raunchy sex -- what saves it is Jack's perspective. Although he has the same laconic, hardboiled style of the others, he's also emotionally fine-tuned, picking up every subtle shift in behavior of those around him. And it takes an intact man to tell the stories of those who aren't.