Let It Bleed

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

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 adrenaline-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.

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.

"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 a while to see how repetitive it is, how people do and say the same things at a bar," Dexter says. "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, Arizona, 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."

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