Let It Bleed

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

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."

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.

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 twenties, 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," Dexter notes.

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," Favre says, "but he was a little undisciplined, and he struggled to find his way. He was much less subdued 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!'"

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