Let It Bleed

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

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?"

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.

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 has 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 two; 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.

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4 comments
Tom Flanagan
Tom Flanagan

Excellent article! I'm proud to have frequented the same Philly bars as Pete and more proud to have read his work. The world's a better place with him in it.

lattefox
lattefox

As I am heading to PHL soon,I was searching a book or two on PHL to read.Pete Dexter was mentioned to me as an interesting character ,talented writer to look up.Pete lives in WA!Though I never lived in PHL,My daughter has been there ,working and now attending U Penn,she can certainly tell you what Pete wrote and experienced personally .PHL is raw,vivid,dangers just around the corner,character of each street vary in black and white,night and day .If you were white middle class or ordinary tax paying citizen,you are confined in a small safe zone in a central area of the town .I worry about my suburban raised white daugher who is into saving animals...I say save yourself and go to greener pasture asap! You can't change history overnight alone.Look what happened to Pete and his fighter friend!

Dandthompson
Dandthompson

You sound like a whiny, little coward. For the love of Christ, visit the city first before you make these tired and untrue assumptions. "Confined in a small safe zone in a central part of town" is laughable as hell. I worry more about your daughter being raised by a type like you than anything this city can do to her. You are truly the voice of the fearful suburb-dweller...maybe some time in Philly will do your boring-ass some good. Good luck.

bobdebidaho
bobdebidaho

@Dandthompson   just must say, you are mistaken....this a Giant of a man and I have known him for many years so I can make this statement....He is anything but a whiner.....

 
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