Let It Bleed

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

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 six, 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," Dexter says. "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.

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.

"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 (South Dakota) 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, Dexter recalls. 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," Dexter says. "I guess one of my great sorrows is that he wasn't there when things went really right for me."

Sometimes, Dexter says, 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."


« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help
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.


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!


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.


@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.....