Since winning the National Book Award in 1988 for Paris Trout, Dexter (Brotherly Love, 1991, etc.) has tried, without success, to recapture that novel's intensity. He hasn't quite done it here, but this tale of a newspaperman's son and his coming to terms with both his gruff father and his more successful journalist brother is absorbing. Narrator Jack James has been kicked out of the University of Florida for vandalism (admitted on a swimming scholarship, he emptied the swimming pool) and returns home to drive a delivery truck for his father's paper, the Moat County Tribune. His brother Ward is an investigative reporter for the Miami Times. Ward and his partner, the foppish Yardley Acheman, come to Moat County to investigate a murder and hire Jack to drive their rental car. With them is Charlotte Bless, a sort of death-row groupie who, having seen a photograph in the paper of the man convicted for the murder, has taken a shine to him. At her encouragement, Yardley and the James brothers set out to prove him innocent. The prisoner, Hillary Van Wetter, is another of Dexter's gritty, rural tough cases with all the depth—and charm—of a swamp. As the investigation progresses, Jack, Ward, and Yardley, each prodded by ambition and desire, make moves that they later regret and that result, Dexter being Dexter, in violence. There are plenty of black-comic scenes here, like when Jack, stung by jellyfish on a beach jaunt with Charlotte, is saved by a group of female nursing students who urinate on him. But Dexter pops from one scene to the next without much focus. Perhaps he's exploring too much at once: what the brothers discover about themselves during the course of their investigative reporting on Van Wetter; the burdens of family expectations; the wages of ambition. A big story laid out in a workmanlike manner, but thematically fickle.
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