Vigilante editing

by Ben Van Heuvelen

David A. Baird has retired as the county prosecutor in Skidmore, Missouri. The New York Times today took the occasion to revisit his most famous case, the unsolved vigilante murder of a man who had it coming. Ken Rex McElroy was such a notorious thug that, after he was shot to death in view of several witnesses, every one but his own wife declined to identify the gunman. 30 years later, that pact of silence has held.

The story brought to mind an old piece by Pete Dexter, a former columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and later the Sacramento Bee. It’s collected in an anthology of his best columns, Paper Trails, which I recommend to anyone who loves writing that is both spare and rich. I couldn’t find the column anywhere on the internet, so I’ve gone and typed it out:

Old Pete had worked construction since he was eleven. He’d never laid brick or run the heavy machinery, he’d never been the foreman. He was fifty-six years old and he looked seventy, and he’d never wanted to be anything but common labor. He’d been good at it, and it had used him up.

He came to the job on time, he left on time. He didn’t say much while there was work to do, and he sat alone at lunch, eating a sandwich made out of Wonder Bread and bologna. He always shaved before he came to work, and he’d had the same lunch pail as long as anybody could remember. Everybody liked to work with Pete because he pulled his share.

The foreman was twenty-seven years old. He’d been shot up and left for dead in Vietnam, and he’d killed men there too. Some of his crew were kids, some of them were men in their thirties and forties, and there were days – mostly when his legs hurt – when he felt older than anybody who worked for him.

He thought he knew everybody he had – he could tell you who would steal and who wouldn’t, who would work if there wasn’t somebody there to watch him – but he’s been around men and fighting all of his adult life, and he also knew he could be wrong.

The kid carried a straight razor in his back pocket. He’s been on the job two weeks and the foreman hadn’t liked him when he’d come on, and nothing the kid had done in the time since had changed that.

He was a narrow-faced kid who never sounded right when he laughed. He dropped a word about the razor into everything he said, and sometimes, in a move so practiced you almost couldn’t see it, his hand would go into the pocket and bring out the razor, and when that motion had ended, the blade would be open and waiting, a few inches from somebody’s face.

And the kid would be laughing in that way that never sounded right.

The foreman had watched it and let it go. The only time he spoke to him was when the kid was talking instead of doing his job. The razor had given him a standing with the other kids on the crew, and when he talked, they stopped work to listen.

When that happened, the kid would say, “Yessir, Mister Boss Man. I gets right back to work in the field now.”

The foreman watched it and let it go. Some of the men thought he was afraid of the kid’s razor.

It didn’t matter to him at all.

From the first day, the kid had been after Old Pete. He had tried to talk to him that day, and as soon as he mentioned the razor, the old man had just walked away.

After that the kid had talked in front of him to the kids on the crew. “You get to be like old Pete,” he’d say, “you gone get hard of hearing too. Maybe somebody gone cut off your ears. Maybe they cut off your prick – hey, Pete, that how come you so mad? They cut off your prick? Hell, I be mad my own self.”

Pete never acknowledged the kid was there. The foreman stayed out of it. He understood that he couldn’t protect him without hurting him.

On the day it happened, the old man was sitting on cement blocks, eating his sandwich. The kid was talking and showing off the razor. Some of the others had gotten bored with the razor and had gone back to talking about women.

The kid said, “I think I gone cut Old Pete.” He moved his hand into his back pocket and half a second later the razor stopped against the old man’s cheek. He had just bitten into the sandwich. He stared at the kid until he took the razor away. Then a thread of blood took its place. It collected almost into a kiss, and then washed down to the old man’s jaw line, where it collected again, and then dropped into the Wonder Bread.

The kid tried to laugh and apologize at the same time. The old man stared. He stared until the kid turned around to get help. Everybody was dead quiet, and while the kid was laughing in a way that would never be right, Old Pete stood up behind him and crushed the back of his skull with an iron pipe.

The foreman didn’t bother trying to restore breathing. He knew the damage almost without looking. The pulse stopped before the police arrived. Old Pete sat on the cement blocks and looked at the body while the foreman told them how it happened.

He said the twenty-pound piece of steel came loose from a cable and hit the kid in the back of the head. The police asked if anybody had seen it happen.

“We all did,” one of the kids said. “It happened while we were eating lunch.”

Typing another writer’s words is kind of voyeuristically charged, like sneaking into his bedroom during a dinner party and trying on his clothes. It’s also instructive. You get a particular sense of his choices that you don’t quite get from the outside.

What struck me just now is: I love how Dexter’s point of view is both strong and almost invisible. While he builds these three characters and sets the scene, he’s also teaching you a code of what it means to be a man. The kid’s offense isn’t a switchblade to the cheek; it’s a violation of a moral universe. Not that Dexter has to say that. If he did, the abstraction of it would put you at a distance, and you’d lose a level of sympathy for Old Pete and his conspirators.

This all leads me to wonder what Dexter would have done with the McElroy murder. Reading the two stories side by side — and recognizing the greater formal restrictions of a news story versus a column, and taking nothing away from A.G. Sulzberger’s fine story in the Times, which after all was compelling enough that it sent me to my bookshelf to find Pete Dexter — I’m struck by the difference between a good and a great writer. Take a look at Sulzberger’s lede:

The murder of Ken Rex McElroy took place in plain view of dozens of residents of this small farm town, under the glare of the morning sun. But in a dramatic act of solidarity with the gunman, every witness, save the dead man’s wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger.

Notice how his first verb lacks action (“took place”), and how he compensates with histrionic modifiers (“under the glare of the morning sun,” “dramatic”). Contrast that with Dexter. His protagonist, Old Pete, is an archetype just like the bully McElroy, but in Dexter’s hands the character doesn’t become a cliche. He writes five unhurried sentences, subject-verb-object followed by subject-verb-object. They give concrete details, and their simplicity functions as a safeguard against sentimentality.

How would Pete Dexter edit the Times’s lede? I wonder. I’ve taken my own pass here, grabbing a few good nuggets that got buried in the story and bringing them upward, while trying to preserve some of the writer’s original structure. Here’s my result:

Ken Rex McElroy had always seemed to cheat justice. He had stolen livestock, harassed women, and shot a local grocer in the neck with a shotgun, but still he got out on bond. Then, one day in 1981, he was murdered in plain view.

As many as 60 witnesses saw McElroy show up in town. He bought beer from the bar and climbed into his pickup beside his wife, when he was met by a vigilante gunman. But in an act of solidarity with the killer, everyone in this small farming town, save the dead man’s wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger.

It was the first major case for a young county prosecutor, not far removed from law school and just months into the job, who said it would soon be cracked. But the silence of the townspeople held. Now, nearly 30 years later, that prosecutor, David A. Baird, is preparing to leave office with his first and most famous case still unsolved.

A few paragraphs ago, I realized who the byline on the Times story belongs to: Arthur Gregg Sulzberger is the son of the newspaper’s publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, which means whoever edited this story had the fraught task of tweaking their future boss’s words. Maybe that’s why those modifiers survived the copy desk? I don’t too much care, except that I hope my playful project doesn’t now seem petty. I also hope the heir to the Times is the kind of writer who appreciates the difference between the slice of an editor and that of a switchblade — or at least would respond with something less than an iron pipe to the head.