Let It Bleed

Hard at work on his eighth novel, Deadwood author Pete Dexter still packs a punch

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.

Pete Dexter, circa 1974. A throwback to a day when big-city columnists’ prose all but rose from the cracks of the sidewalks— or subways.
News file
Pete Dexter, circa 1974. A throwback to a day when big-city columnists’ prose all but rose from the cracks of the sidewalks— or subways.
Pete Dexter in front of brick building at the state hospital for the criminally insane in Milledgeville, Georgia.
Photo by Amy Rosenberga
Pete Dexter in front of brick building at the state hospital for the criminally insane in Milledgeville, Georgia.

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 where Cobb used to train.)

"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 might have taken a pounding himself in the City of Brotherly Love, but some 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.

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