Dexter Is Brilliant. So’s The First Amendment.

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I feel compelled to respond to an LA Times review I read today of the latest Dexter novel, Dexter by Design (hat’s off to Paul Levine for posting it on Facebook). http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-et-book24-2009sep24,0,5311988.story  The reviewer, Jonathan Shapiro, not only panned the book, he insulted the many thousands of Dexter fans out there (and yes, I’m one of them), saying it comes as close to meeting the legal definition of “obscene” as anything he’s read in years, since he claims the book is “prurient and lacking in any redeeming social value.”

Mr. Shapiro is a lawyer. If he truly believes what he wrote, he should approach his law school and demand a full refund of his tuition.  Not only do I disagree vehemently with him on Dexter’s merit, but I think someone needs to point out that by his apparent standards the entire romance section of any Barnes & Noble would be subject to banning.

To put it bluntly, Mr. Shapiro cavalierly misrepresents the legal definition of obscenity. Setting aside the fact that it is hard to understand how he could twist much of Dexter into “appealing to the prurient interest,” that is merely one component of the legal definition, and the definition doesn’t actually use the vague term “redeeming social value” at all.

 

 For something to be “obscene” it must be shown that the average person, applying contemporary community standards and viewing the material as a whole, would find (1) that the work appeals predominantly to “prurient” interest; (2) that it depicts or describes sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and (3) that it lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

 

 Shapiro’s entitled to his opinion, of course, and to the public expression of it.  But to pretend that Dexter by Design comes anywhere even remotely close to meeting this definition would constitute malpractice if he did it in the course of representing a client.

 

Dexter is a brilliant creation (frankly, I hate Jeff Lindsay for all eternity for having come up with him, because I didn’t). He’s a sociopath who, lacking a conscience, is instead guided to prosecute an unconventional version of “good” by a code of conduct instilled in him by his late foster father, Harry. A veteran police officer, Harry recognized what Dexter was at an early age, and decided to channel his violent tendencies in pursuit of a higher justice.  He saw him as a possible way to balance the flaws in the system, and to that end trained him throughout his youth how to avoid detection and blend in with normal society.

 

The plots are usually dark and darkly fun, but what makes the Dexter novels so enrapturing to me is the journey his first person narrative takes you on through his psyche—the exploration of his struggles to appear normal, to figure out the proper way to act in a given situation, to do what is “right” by his father’s code.  In each book, Dexter is baffled by the way everyday people behave, the way their actions and feelings often defy logic, the way their expectations are frequently unreasonable, and the way they are driven by inscrutable emotions.  And by “their” I mean, of course, “our.”  It is in Dexter’s constant need to analyze those around him, to divine their intentions and perspectives when their true motivations are clearly a mystery to him, that we find common ground with this supposedly conscienceless serial killer.  Dexter, who constantly reminds readers that he’s not human like the rest of us, is actually very, very much like the rest of us.

 

Dexter professes not to believe in God, but he often wavers on the subject and seems at best uncertain. He doesn’t believe in the criminal justice system, but manages to work by day within law enforcement, efficiently and professionally. He doesn’t believe in friendship, but frequently goes above and beyond what anyone could reasonably expect a friend to do in his effort to appear normal. He doesn’t believe in love–indeed, claims to have no emotions at all—but he manages to be a supportive boyfriend (now husband) to an emotionally damaged woman, and a father-figure to her two children.

 

In other words, he’s just like everyone else, only more so. He’s a microcosm of the modern man, exaggerated and played out on an objective slate. A prism through which we can analyze the human condition while stepping outside its bounds.

 

Which brings us to the review. Shapiro takes offense at Dexter’s blood lust and killing as depicted in the novels, and takes particular umbrage over Dexter’s intentions regarding his stepchildren.

 

Mr. Shapiro is missing the entire point.

 

Dexter is a monster, but a monster who’s been harnessed by a father figure, a man whose towering presence haunts him like a ghostly mentor. As a result, Dexter’s monstrous urges are directed solely at other monsters, people who rape and kill and escape the system, those who prey on the innocent with impunity. Dexter’s a guardian, a protector, the most unlikely hero of all. He can’t help what he is, only what he does. And what he does instead of simply murdering randomly is kill bad guys.

 

The children in his charge, Cody and Astor, survived an abusive father and suffered through the death of their true humanity at an early age, much like Dexter. They are filled with a dark presence, a supernatural force that seeks out such voids, just like Dexter is, and see him for his true self, just as he recognizes what they are. While Shapiro obviously objects to Dexter’s intentions with these children as deplorable, what he’s doing is taking little monsters who are going to be monsters no matter what and ensuring they don’t grow up to harm innocent people and end up institutionalized or on death row. He’s saving them, them and their potential victims. To compare Dexter’s relationship with them to the main character in Lolita probably does more to reveal how Mr. Shapiro thinks than how Jeff Lindsay does. The only people who need fear what Dexter’s doing are other monsters, the type that will undoubtedly provide the eventual outlet for Cody and Astor’s homicidal urges. If that offends Mr. Shapiro, someone needs to remind him that novels like this are works of fiction. Nobody’s actually getting killed. No homicidal scumbags are actually being deprived of due process.

 

And because it is fiction we’re talking about, Mr. Shapiro’s words pose a far greater threat to society than Dexter ever could. By throwing around a label like obscenity, couching it in terms of a legal definition it clearly doesn’t meet, shrouding it in the authority of a former federal prosecutor, Mr. Shapiro is implicitly declaring that these novels might be considered as falling outside the scope of first amendment protection. That is scary as hell, folks. Jeff Lindsay isn’t promoting violence, or vigilantism, or sociopathy; he isn’t promoting anything. He’s telling stories, stories involving a fascinating character through which readers can observe the human animal—red in tooth and claw, sure, but one bound by a surprisingly admirable code that does a better job of protecting the innocent and punishing the guilty than our vaunted system of justice often does.

 

Guys like Dexter don’t disturb me nearly as much as guys like Shapiro do. For one, Dexter’s not real. And for another, he poses absolutely no threat to free speech.

3 Responses to “Dexter Is Brilliant. So’s The First Amendment.”

  1. Paul Levine says:

    EXCELLENT analysis of the show. Being the charitable sort, I prefef to think that the triple-digit heat in L.A. has warped Jonathan Shapiro’s antennae. The good news: FINALLY, Dexter returns Sunday.

  2. JulieAnn says:

    Slacker.

    I’m going to stalk you now…but only if you blog DAMN it.

    I agree with your insight into Shapiro, btw, in case you wondered.

    Be good, or be good at it.

    JA

  3. Let the stalking begin.

    Slacker.

    Blogs are seen as a time waster to some. I find them to be a great exercise for clearing my head for working.

    I agree with what you wrote about Shapiro and Dexter. Reality is much more frightening than fiction. I’m living proof of this.

    Ciao (and thanks for everything 😉

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