Pete Dexter lets it bleed
On a warm late-summer afternoon, Pete Dexter trudges across the living room of his home perched high above Puget Sound on Whidbey Island, Diet Coke in hand, and steels himself to tell the story of how he was once beaten half to death by a pack of drunken thugs in South Philadelphia.
It is an anguished saga that the legendary columnist—and author of Deadwood, acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter, and now part of an anthology celebrating some of the nation's greatest newspaper wordsmiths—has shared before. Even 30 years later, recounting the fight never gets easier for Dexter.
"I'm sick and tired of the story," says Dexter, though he knows it is a signature moment of his trajectory from newsman to writing some of the most original and important novels in American literature, including the National Book Award–winning Paris Trout (1988), a riveting tale of an unrepentant racist who brutally murders a 14-year-old black girl in a small Georgia town in the late 1940s.
Settling deep into a dark-green leather chair near a patio window that offers a commanding view of ferries chugging across the cold blue waters, Dexter begins: "It was not a good column. I was trying to write something I didn't feel."
Dexter is referring to the column that almost got him killed. Published December 9, 1981 in the Philadelphia Daily News, and running under the headline, "In Tasker, It's About to Stop," Dexter's intent was to applaud community efforts to stop the spread of drug dealing in Grays Ferry, a blue-collar, Irish Catholic neighborhood rife with racial clashes, a lot of dope, and a lot of hate.
"A couple of weeks ago, a kid named Buddy Lego was found dead in Cobbs Creek," wrote Dexter. "It was a Sunday afternoon. He was from the neighborhood, a good athlete, a nice kid. Stoned all the time. The kind of kid you think you could have saved."
The kid's mother called Dexter, nearly hysterical. How, she cried, could he write that her dead son was a drug user? Lego's brother, Tommy, the night bartender at Dougherty's, was also on the phone, screaming at the then-38-year-old columnist, demanding a retraction.
"So I tell him I'll come down to the bar," Dexter recalls. "We can talk about it, but no, I say, I'm not doing a retraction. My source was good. So I go into the bar a few days later, thinking I'd calm things down. It's about eight at night. I say, ‘Get me a beer and we'll talk.' Then somebody hits me from the right side, sheared off a bunch of teeth. Then I get hit again. So I get out of there."
Dexter went straight to the home of his buddy, famous fighter Randall "Tex" Cobb, who was hosting a party. (Less than a year later, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Cobb, known for having one of the greatest chins of all time, fought 15 rounds at the Houston Astrodome and lost the heavyweight championship to Larry Holmes.)
"So I tell him what happened, and I'm kind of fuzzy on this, but I think Randall says, ‘Well, let's go straighten this out,' " recalls Dexter. "So he and a few others come back with me. We get there and the same three or four guys are there at the bar. I say to them, There will be no sucker punches now.'
"Randall says, ‘What do you want to do now?' And I didn't know. If only I'd given it a little thought. It was a moment of complete futility. No one was listening. It was as if I'd killed the guy's brother. So this little fat guy gets up, goes outside for something, and the next thing I know the room is filled up—maybe 30 guys. They got bats and tire irons, and this is where Randall supposedly said, ‘I hope this is the local softball team.' "
A haunted look clouds Dexter's face as the story aches forward.
"We started heading out the door," he goes on. "Randall and I were the last ones out. It's freezing—rain and sleet on the streets. Randall got hit with a crowbar. I ran toward the guy who did it. I wanted to bite that fat fucker's face. And then the lights went out. Randall said I was on the ground getting hit with a bat and pool stick. I don't know why I didn't end up dead that night."
Barely conscious, it was Cobb (who, in his boxing career, was only knocked out once, by Dee Collier in 1985) who fended off the attackers and got Dexter to the hospital, likely saving his life.
At the hospital, things grew dire. "They were late getting the tube down my throat, and I didn't get the anesthesia," says Dexter. "I couldn't breathe. I woke up and they were screwing screws into my legs while I was still awake, but I couldn't talk. It was like an electric shock going through me."
Dexter suffered a broken pelvis, a cracked femur, nerve damage to his hands, a concussion, bleeding on the brain, and a spine fractured in two places. His scalp required 90 stitches.
Staring out at the lush green foliage, Dexter bends his knees up to his chest and falls silent. Finally he confides, "If I had to do it all over again, I'd have just ignored them. I wouldn't have gone down to the bar. It was a half-assed column, but I had it right."
Presently occupied with his eighth novel—set in the 1930s, about a small traveling circus in Michigan's Upper Peninsula—Dexter, 68, says the brawl helped shape his understanding of the mindless violence that would become integral to his literary repertoire—powerful works that include Deadwood (1986), Paris Trout (1988), Brotherly Love (1991), The Paperboy (1995), Train (2003), and Spooner (2009). He stopped drinking, too, as the booze, Dexter says, started to taste like battery acid.
Not long after the fight, he began his first novel, God's Pocket (1983), about the killing of a despised construction worker, set in an incestuous, blue-collar south Philadelphia neighborhood. As for Cobb, who suffered a broken arm during the melee, Dexter says sadly, "He was never the same fighter again."
Dexter recently entered a veritable Hall of Fame of column writers when three of his finely wrought creations were included in Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns. In the newly released collection, which has drawn rave reviews, Dexter's work appears alongside that of such titans as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Walter Lippmann, Hunter S. Thompson, H.L. Mencken, and Will Rogers.
One column chosen for the book—edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo, and Errol Louis—is titled "Head in a Box," a seriocomic turn Dexter wrote for the Daily News in 1982 about a couple of parking-meter repairmen, Tony and Jose, who, while making their rounds on Germantown Avenue one afternoon, stumble upon a white paper sack with a human head inside.
From the column: "Tony shrugs, and Jose opens it carefully, not wanting to damage a real nice paper sack, and looks inside. Tony waits. Jose just stares inside the sack. ‘Hey, Tony,' he says after a minute, ‘there's a head inside this paper sack.' "
" ‘A what?' "
" ‘It's not a coconut, Tony. It's a head.' And Jose sees that his boss doesn't believe him, so he reaches in the sack and pulls the head out. A human skull. The jaw bone is missing and so are the teeth, but outside of that it is perfect. ‘It's not a coconut,' Jose says again."
Vintage Dexter storytelling: "cold-eyed and funny," as the back-of-the-book credits for Deadline Artists state.
"He saw the human condition in ways most of us don't see. He had, and still has, an extraordinary eye and an extraordinary ear," observes David Lawrence, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. It was Lawrence, later a distinguished publisher of The Miami Herald, who in 1974 tracked down Dexter at the South Florida service station where he was pumping gas, and offered him a reporter's job. "He was a stunning talent, but something of a loose cannon."
A rum-swilling Dexter drank Philly under the table, at Dirty Frank's, McGlinchey's, and Doc Watson's. He once threatened to drown a city editor in a pot of chili. He collected bets on whether a case of beer could be thrown across Pine Street. He'd loan the company car to Cobb, who sometimes forgot to bring it back. Dexter split with his first wife because she didn't see the devilish humor in his bringing a bear into her bedroom, then leaving the room and closing the door. After all, Dexter reasoned, the bear was tame.
In spare, strong prose—elegant in its "exquisite stripped-to-the-bone style . . . the violence shimmering off of virtually every word like heat off fresh road kill," as writer Buzz Bissinger described it in a review of Dexter's 2007 collection of columns, Paper Trails—Dexter's pieces chronicled loneliness and cruelty, the folly of life itself.
He wrote about old drunks, nut-brained desperadoes, and screwballs like Jack Walsh of Trenton, N.J., who called Dexter at a bar one night claiming he could survive a four-ton truck sitting on his stomach for 10 full seconds. And Dexter couldn't resist regaling his readers with slap-happy stories of Mickey Rosati's Gym, where the 155-pound scribe with bad legs indulged his love of boxing and more than once got his nose bloodied sparring with Cobb. ("It's a shame people get hurt, but there's a beauty to it," says Dexter. "It works you out in ways gym rats could never imagine.")
A keen-eyed, unsentimental observer, "outraged by cruelty, but never surprised," as Pete Hamill, author and onetime hard-drinking New York City newsman, wrote of him, Dexter penned 900-word columns three times a week for Philly's afternoon tabloid. There was the homeless man crushed by a 300-ton crane; the boy who gave up having sexual intercourse with dogs; a paean to the genius of baseball analyst Tim McCarver; and a sweet little piece on how he taught his daughter, Casey, the way chickens lay eggs by shoving one down Mrs. Dexter's pants.
In an e-mail, former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez writes of Dexter: "He's the best I've ever read. He's the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself." Adds Lopez, author of The Soloist, a book (later made into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx) based on a series of columns he wrote for the Los Angeles Times (where he still works) about a homeless musician he befriended on Skid Row in Los Angeles: "Dexter writes a sentence that sits on the page like a fist, and you can't even begin to break it down, to figure out where its power is or how he constructed it, or even thought of it. It's just there."
Here's a Dexter nugget about a memorable stay at a hotel in Oklahoma City: "My friend Fred and I walked into the room they gave us, and there was a body lying on one of the beds. The eyes and mouth were open, and there was dried blood on the teeth. We were young and harder then, and Fred went over to the other bed and lay down. ‘I think I'll take this one,' he said.' "
On women's breasts: "I think's fair to say that women overestimate breasts. More to the point, they overestimate the hold breasts have on men. Men notice new breasts, but by the time they get to know the owner, breasts—or the absence of breasts—are among the things they have taken for granted, like Southern accents. This isn't all bad. Like almost everything else, in the end, breasts are more complicated than they look, and too much thinking can ruin anything."
"Pete really blossomed in Philadelphia. It's where he developed his voice," notes Gregory Favre, a former editor of Dexter's in Florida.
It was also in Philadelphia where Dexter began his long, complicated association with Cobb, who later, as a washed-up fighter, reinvented himself as a Hollywood actor, taking on villainous roles in such films as Ace Ventura and the Coen brothers' 1987 comedy Raising Arizona, in which Cobb played Leonard Smalls, the lone biker of the Apocalypse. (Cobb could not be reached for comment. "I see him around from time to time, borrowing money and stuff. He don't look too good," recounts Mickey Rosati Sr., owner of the South Philly gym Cobb used to train at.)
"We had a strange relationship," Dexter says of his old sparring partner. "We were so completely different. We traded off being the older brother. He was a white guy, a little slow defensively. I was constantly worried about Randall, that something bad was going to happen to his head, to his brain [from all the punches he absorbed]."
Dexter may have taken a pounding himself in the City of Brotherly Love, but some very good things happened to him along the way, none less than finding Dian, his second wife. For 32 years and counting, it has been a marriage filled with mischief, for Dexter delighted in making her the foil of numerous columns. As he admitted in one: "I swear there is something in me that has to tease that girl, and every time I do it, I get letters from people who say she ought to slam the door on my testicles."
In 1986, Dexter gently closed the door on Philly after a dozen years and headed to Sacramento. He ended his farewell column in the Daily News this way: "I have seen a pope. I have seen Julius Erving at the top of his game. I have seen a city administrator burn down a neighborhood. I watched Randall Cobb slowly realize he would never become heavyweight champion of the world. One night I almost watched myself die.
"And as moving as those things were at the time, they are not what endure. What endures are the people I loved.
"Somewhere along the line, this city has done me a profound favor. I glimpse it once in a while at night in the street, among the people who live there, or along the road. Hitchhikers. It cuts fresh every time.
"I recognize the lost faces because one of them, I think, was supposed to be mine."
Clad in faded gym shorts, a sweat-stained T-shirt, and a pink New York Yankees cap, Dexter emerges from his Whidbey guesthouse. Squinting in the bright, crayon-blue September sunshine, a smile lights his face as he greets Walter and Henry, his beloved Labrador retrievers.
Henry, more rambunctious, earns the most affection. "I talk a lot to him, and he listens. I think he understands," Dexter muses. "I read to him."
The guesthouse is where Dexter writes, seven days a week, always in the dead of night—midnight to 5 a.m. Then he'll sleep, usually until 2 p.m. The routine is seldom broken, just like his mornings pounding the bag at Rosati's.
"I like the quiet," he volunteers. "Last night, I had a good night."
"What do you consider a good night?" he's asked.
"Four pages," he replies. "When there's something good and really fresh on each page, that's a good night. I know when I'm being stale, repeating myself, pulling the same trick."
Dexter and Mrs. Dexter, as he always referred to her in his columns, moved 18 years ago to Clinton, a windswept village (pop. 928) scattered across a bluff on the south end of 35-mile-long Whidbey Island, which he discovered during a book tour in Seattle in the early '90s. One day he rented a car and went wandering, and was struck by the island's beauty and solitude.
The Dexters live in a large bungalow that sits atop 10 thickly wooded acres. A winding, tree-lined gravel road leads to the home. The place is bright and airy, featuring a knotty pine–paneled living room, a stone-encased fireplace, built-in bookcases, high ceilings, and breathtaking vistas of the Cascade Range.
The Dexters' life is largely reclusive. There are dinners in nearby Langley, a quaint bed-and-breakfast hamlet, and the occasional foray to San Diego to visit Casey, a former film assistant in L.A. who recently gave birth to her first child and made Dexter a grandpa. There are also trips down the hill to Bailey's Corner Store to fetch a New York Times; and, as serious Yankee fans (especially Dian), they subscribe to a cable network that airs all 162 games.
"I've tried to keep a low profile here. I just wanted to get out of California, out of the big city, with all the crime and traffic. There was nothing right with that place," Dexter volunteers, referring to Sacramento, where he spent his final years in the news business as a columnist for The Sacramento Bee in the late 1980s. He says the Bee felt like working at an insurance company—at least compared to the madcap atmosphere he and fellow misfits enjoyed at the Daily News.
Accustomed to the adrenalin-drenched grind of daily journalism, the early days on Whidbey were an adjustment. Initially, he found himself "full of juice and no place to shoot it," as he playfully laments in the introduction he wrote for Paper Trails, a compilation of 82 columns mostly from his days at the Daily News and the Bee.
"What does one do, for instance, with the story of Lucky Al, as he was known during his short stay here on the island?" Dexter continues, by way of explaining the frustration of no longer having a permanent newspaper slot in which to spin his yarns. Al, Dexter learned, was a 54-year-old bachelor who'd come to Whidbey after getting a seven-figure settlement from a drug company. The guy buys a new car and a set of Callaway golf clubs, smokes $50 cigars, joins the local council for the arts, and rescues a dog from the pound. Yes, Lucky Al has the world by the tail.
Then, just a few months into his new life, Lucky Al dies in his bathtub, and—making it a columnist's dream—is subsequently eaten by his dog.
As he writes in the intro to Paper Trails, with an uncanny blend of tragedy and gallows humor, a Dexter trademark: "In the dog's defense, she'd only been with him a month, and it's easy to criticize from the sidelines when you're not hungry yourself."
Dexter no longer misses the news business, however. "Papers, they all look alike now. It's sort of like Hollywood. If something works, everyone copies it," he complains. "I couldn't work at the Philadelphia Daily News now. There's no one anymore who's going to turn you loose to go after a story the way it used to be."
After Dian shoos Henry and Walter outside, Dexter ambles toward the bedroom to change. "As long as I got company, I guess I'll put on a pair of pants," he cracks. He offers his guest a beer, though he won't drink one himself, fetching instead another Diet Coke.
"Yeah, I've drank bathtubs full of hooch, but I never craved it," he says. "I didn't drink because I was depressed or anything. I used it because funny things tended to develop when I was drinking. It took me awhile to see how repetitive it is, how people do and say the same things at a bar," says Dexter. "Now, maybe I'll have a drink, maybe a beer once a month at the most, when me and Dian go out."
In a subsequent interview, Dexter concedes, "I had a strange relationship with the bottle. I never met anyone who drank as often as I did, but who did it purely for recreation. To me, going to the bar was like going to the circus every day."
Dexter, a half-orphaned kid raised in South Dakota and Illinois, is round-shouldered and no heavier than the 155 or so pounds he weighed back when he danced around the ring with Cobb. His body has taken its share of lumps through the years: broken bones, "six or seven" hip replacements, and bum legs that have grown increasingly fragile since he was hurt playing football at the University of South Dakota.
He's still getting over a mysterious viral infection that landed him in a Tucson, Ariz., hospital for 10 weeks late last year. (He and Dian escape the cold and rain most of the fall and winter, returning to their getaway in Tubac, a tiny arts community 45 miles south of Tucson.)
"I got bit by my daughter's puppy and got horribly sick," he says. "I'm not quite the same now. It sapped my strength and kind of ate my rotator cuff. I can work, but I can't work as fast as I used to."
The work presently at hand is the next novel, which centers on an elephant named Blossom—the book's working title—who performs in a small traveling circus. Dexter won't say much more than that, mainly because he's not sure where the project is heading.
"I got 300 pages right now that have nothing to do with each other. I'm really not sure what it is yet. I figure by this time next year, I'll have a shape to it. Right now, I just keep starting over again with a completely new set of characters. I haven't even got to the elephant yet."
What Dexter does know is that the book's tone will be far less serious than the novels that put him on the literary map, most particularly Paris Trout. Writer/humorist Roy Blount Jr. once offered this appraisal of that novel: "I put it down once to wipe off the sweat." In 1991, the screen adaptation Dexter wrote for Showtime, starring Dennis Hopper, caught Hollywood's fancy and propelled Dexter into writing scripts for films including Rush and Mulholland Falls.
Still, for many, Dexter might be best known for Deadwood, his iconic novel that featured Calamity Jane, the legendary Wild Bill Hickok, and his friend Charlie Utter, who come to the Black Hills town of Deadwood in the Dakota Territory during the gold rush of 1876–77. The unvarnished glimpse of the Old West was adapted by HBO, though its tone was much more vulgar than that of Dexter's novel. The series ran from March 2004 to August 2006, and Dexter had no involvement in the project.
Deadwood, like his other novels, demonstrated the disturbing, unsettling style that creeps into Dexter's writing, blending hilarity with heartbreak, just as his columns often did. The prose is taut, the pace quick. Dexter jabs and jabs at the reader, "ultimately creating a brutal deception," writes Pete Hamill, "and then he unloads the hook."
In The Paperboy, Dexter writes: "Thurmond Call was found lying on the highway early in the morning, in a rainstorm, a quarter of a mile from his cruiser. The engine had died but the wipers were still moving, in spasms, and his headlights were a dim orange. The wide-mouthed jar that he carried between his legs as he drove to receive his tobacco juice was sitting on the roof. He had been opened up, stomach to groin, and left for dead."
This is the kind of material that Dexter summons when he works, and it comes without a compass or road map. There's a concept, an idea for a substantive story, but nothing is outlined and nothing is plotted.
"I have no idea how to do that," he says. "I could never write a book that way. It would bore me to death. I like to see where it goes. I make up my own rules. That's the fun of it. I don't want to be in control, and I never feel like I'm in control. I want the story to lead me. When you follow the story, you don't make as many mistakes. "
Dexter never took a journalism class in college, though he read some Hemingway and was a serious writer of poetry at the University of South Dakota. Reading books, he says, came late to him.
In his mid-20s, he found himself working odd jobs: mail sorter, laborer, truck driver, car salesman. He lived hand-to-mouth. Then one afternoon, on a break from selling Jaguars, he happened to stroll by the offices of what is now the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and saw a sign for a reporting position. Those were the days.
"I looked in at all the girls. They all had white boots on," Dexter remembers. "I was out there sweating and I walked in, and it was air-conditioned!"
His career in journalism was launched that day. He covered ports, state agencies, tomatoes ("Yeah, tomatoes were an important beat"), and medical issues. "Back then, the more stories you got in the paper, the more important you were," notes Dexter.
From there, Dexter went on to The Palm Beach Post, hired by Gregory Favre, the paper's editor, and the two of them hit it off. "There was always a gem or two in anything he wrote," recalls Favre, who later, as executive editor of the Bee, lured Dexter westward to be a metro columnist.
"Pete was a great, enormous talent," says Favre, "but he was a little undisciplined and he struggled to find his way. He was much less subdued then than he is now."
Jim Trotter, a colleague of Dexter's at the Post and now Western States Enterprise Editor for the Associated Press in Phoenix, has a number of unforgettable Dexter stories. One of his favorites: "Pete invented a drink back in those days called a beagle. Basically, it was a quart of rum, a small bottle of lime juice, and a dash of Pepsi in a one-gallon Coleman picnic jug. That led to the Mighty Beagle Army, and you had to perform tricks with the jug to move up in rank. One night, we got kicked out of this woman's party for throwing the jug across her living room, arguing over who had the prettier spiral.
"This building was on the beach, and we're standing outside on the third floor trying to decide what to do next when Pete decides we're going to do something never done before, the ‘third-floor Beagle.' He orders a copyboy from the paper, this terrific kid named Acey, to go down to the parking lot and lay down. Pete held the jug on the third-floor rail and pushed the button. It wasn't long before we heard a cry rising up through the wind.
" ‘Stop, Pete, it's burning my eyes! It's burning my eyes!' Pete shouted down to the prone figure on the ground, ‘Goddamn it, Acey! Hold still! We're trying to do something up here!' "
After two years at The Palm Beach Post, Dexter followed Favre out the door. His boss abruptly quit when Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises forced all its editors to endorse Richard Nixon over George McGovern in 1972. Favre went to The Daytona Beach News-Journal and brought Dexter and his equally irreverent colleague, Dan Geringer. When Favre moved again, to a Miami television station, Dexter left the paper, having received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to write poetry. Six months later, when the money ran out, Dexter and Geringer wound up at Ron's Belvedere, a gas station in West Palm Beach.
"I remember I worked 77 hours a week and got $99 a week take-home pay," Dexter says. "It seems like it was all white Cadillacs coming in. God, it was so hot, you could fuse your fingers together trying to open the hood."
"So Ron had this dog at the station," Dexter continues, "and he was shitting all over the place—in the service bays and everything. Around this time, I'd gotten a call from Dave Lawrence, who I'd heard of but never met, wanting me to come and be a reporter in Philly. So I had to decide: Do I keep pumping gas and cleaning up for this animal, or go?"
Three days after the call—just before Christmas 1974—Dexter arrived in Philadelphia with, as he noted in his farewell column, "one pair of boots, no coat, running as close to empty as I've ever been."
It was rough going in the beginning. "They were going through city editors like machine gunners during World War II," Dexter says, shaking his head. "We had one city editor, poor bastard, everyone hated him. And he had all these secret files on me, and I knew he was trying to get rid of me.
"So anyway, this guy has a party at his house to try and improve morale. It was a chili party and his wife had made two big pots. I told him I was going to drown him in it. I had a hold of his shirt when I told him."
Gil Spencer, the much-adored editor at the Philadelphia Daily News and later the New York Daily News, knew how to get the best out of his loose cannons, especially ones able to craft sharp-edged narratives like Dexter. It was Spencer who gave Dexter the chance to write a column in 1976. (It was also in 1976 that Dexter voted for Morris Udall in the presidential primary. He's written him in ever since for president, even though the Arizona representative died in 1998.)
Spencer died this past June at age 85, and Dexter still grieves. "He was one of the best people I've ever known," he says quietly. "The world got a whole lot less interesting since he died."
The death of Dexter's stepfather also hit him hard, a key reason he spent so much time pouring his guts into Spooner, the book he's proudest of. It took Dexter four years to write this sprawling, touching novel about the many misadventures of a wayward soul.
Title character Warren Spooner's fictional life closely resembles Dexter's real one: His father dies when he's 2; he spends his early childhood in Milledgeville, Georgia, and the Midwest; he's an incorrigible kid raised by a nurturing stepfather (the fictional Calmer Ottosson) with inexhaustible patience; he works a series of low-paying jobs, drinks to excess, endures a failed first marriage, and goes on to a newspaper career in Florida and then a successful column and happy second marriage in Philadelphia.
And, like Dexter, Spooner is beaten up by hooligans enraged by a column he wrote: "To Spooner's huge relief, he looked up into the night sky, and found it full of Stanley's remarkable face. That boneless nose. ‘Another night in the life of a big-city columnist,' Stanley said, and picked Spooner up off the street with his good right arm. Spooner achieved verticality, but noticed that one of his legs had ceased to function. Absolutely would not move.
" ‘We got to go,' Stanley said."
Of his writing regimen, Dexter says, "It's work. You're pulling stuff out, like I did with Spooner, that doesn't want to come out. The only time I really enjoyed the process was writing Spooner. I didn't want it to end."
For Dexter, the most essential quality a novelist must possess is the ability to entertain his or her readers. "There's nothing more important than that."
It's a good mystery that most entertains Dexter. In Philly, Dexter became a regular at the Whodunit bookstore, where he first met Tex Cobb. He likes Mike Connelly's stuff ("He knows what's he's doing"), and Scott Turow ("He always aims high. You can see him really trying"), and just about anything by Elmore Leonard.
Among more traditional novelists, Dexter admires Padgett Powell, Thomas McGuane, Tom Wolfe, and Jim Harrison. But it is friend and author Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Empire Falls) who is Dexter's absolute favorite.
"I got a call from The New York Times some time back, asking me what the best novel of the last, I forget, 25 or 50 years was," Dexter recalls. "And I told him it was Straight Man," Russo's poignant 1997 novel about a wisecracking professor trying to navigate his way through a highly dysfunctional English department at a central Pennsylvania university.
Dexter's respect for Russo is mutual. In an e-mail, Russo writes: "Pete Dexter has always been a writer after my own heart: sly, yet deeply honest, full of twisted wit and spirit. He wears both his prodigious talent and knowledge of the human heart ever so lightly, as if they're hardly worth mentioning, a mere parlor trick, and not the stuff of which great art is made."
Dexter still dreams of his stepfather, Thurlo Tollefson, a science and math teacher who moved the family—Dexter, his older brother, and later two other children—from Georgia to Vermillion, a town in the southeast corner of South Dakota.
Tollefson soon discovered that little Pete was quite a handful. At 6, Pete was swiping Dentyne from the A&P and stealing eggs out from under his neighbors' chickens. "I was lying and stealing all the time," says Dexter. "Once he bought a brand-new Ford, the first new car he ever had. I think I was 12, and I remember we went to a restaurant, and when he was inside, I put the lighter to the plastic seat covers.
"And so he comes out and sees it, and I say someone else must have done it. He had to wonder what he had on his hands, maybe a budding bank robber. But all the stuff I did and the problems I caused, he never showed any favoritism."
Dexter goes on: "He must have been feeling an enormous burden—four kids, a wife constantly sick, not much money. All of this kind of stuff came out when I was writing Spooner."
What most breaks Dexter's heart, though, is what happened to his stepfather during his reporting days in Florida.
Tollefson had become an assistant superintendent in the Sioux Falls (S.D.) School District. It was 1972, and Tollefson had deep roots in liberal politics. Badly wanting his friend George McGovern to win the presidency, he paid for an ad on behalf of the South Dakota Democrat in the local paper, the Argus Leader. District officials and the school board were furious and made Tollefson's life miserable, forcing him out of his job, recalls Dexter. Had it been a decade later, after Dexter had achieved a good measure of fame and money, "I could have done something, hired a lawyer, sued the school board, something. God, I'd have traded a couple of books if I could have made him happy the last 10 years of his life."
Dexter says his stepfather was never bitter about losing his job, but it depressed him. "One day I got a call from my mother telling me he couldn't get out of bed. I never saw him happy again. He didn't have as much fun as he should have had, and that's what we're here for, to have a little fun.
"Yeah, I still dream of him. He was the most Christlike person I ever met. Absolutely selfless."
Sometime before he died in 1978, Tollefson paid a visit to his stepson in Philadelphia. "It tickled him to death that he saw what I was doing and where things were now heading for me," says Dexter. "I guess one of my great sorrows is that he wasn't there when things went really right for me."
Sometimes, says Dexter, when he's writing, or when the daydreams descend, as they often do when his thoughts turn to his stepfather, or the Rosatis, or Tex Cobb, "You get to revisit your past, and when I do that, I've come around to thinking, you know, that people are who they are."
Or, as he writes in the final line of The Paperboy: "There are no intact men."
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