The Local Lens
Wed, Apr 29, 2015
By Thom Nickels
For a writer, the ability to entertain readers doesn’t require a pronounced accent or a certain pose while smoking a pipe. Raw talent can appear anywhere. It can even assume the guise of the so-called average man in a pickup truck.
Take Pete Dexter, for instance. Dexter is about as far from the "finely-cultured" literary gentleman as one can get. In personal appearances and interviews about his astonishing writing career, he usually appears in a baseball cap, sometimes cocked at an angle, with his hair uneven and spiraling out from behind his ears.
In YouTube interviews, Dexter doesn’t appear to be as tall as the people who interview him. I noticed something else about the man: he has eyes like Edgar Allan Poe. Poe, of course, had a highly dramatic personal life. Dexter’s life, especially when he lived in Philly, was also highly dramatic.
Like Poe, Dexter didn’t make Philly his permanent home. He was born in Pontiac, Mich., in 1943, did his undergrad work at the University of South Dakota. He eventually wound up in Philly because of journalism, arriving just before the Christmas of 1974 to churn out articles for The Philadelphia Daily News.
Before that, the Puget Sound, Wash., resident worked a series of menial jobs like mail sorter in a post office, car salesman and truck driver. He was once even a ditch-digger in Florida. This was before he landed his first job in journalism as a novice reporter for The South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He lucked out one day when he saw a Help Wanted ad for a reporter in the window of the Sentinel, something that would never happen in today’s world. He got the job and worked as a reporter for The Palm Beach Post. He also started writing for magazines, but his real jump into the newspaper limelight occurred when he began working for The Daily News.
Two years after his arrival in 1974, Daily News Editor Gil Spencer would let Dexter try his hand at writing a column. By the time he left Philly in 1986, he was one of the city’s most famous columnist. But Dexter hasn’t always gotten along with newspaper editors—there’s a famous story about how he once allegedly threatened to push an editor’s head into a pot of chili during a holiday party.
These were the days when newspaper columnists produced two or three columns a week at 800-900 words per column. Newspaper columnists today appear once a week if they are lucky. Dexter likes to say that columnists who are published once a week can easily hide who they are, but when you write three or four or five times a week, you can’t hide who you are from readers.
"A pose exposes itself," he says.
Dexter likes to joke that he got his column at the Daily News because the editors there got tired of him pestering them about writing stories. But once he settled into the life of a columnist, he says it was one of the happiest periods of his life. His days as a Philly columnist were fun and reckless. He could be seen hanging out in—and closing out—bars like Dirty Frank’s, McGlinchey’s and Doc Watson’s in Center City. He had a penchant for pushing the envelope, getting into small fights, wrecking company cars and carousing into the wee hours.
Then there was his fateful column on December 9, 1981 about the efforts to combat drug dealing in the tough, often-violent Irish neighborhood of Grays Ferry, also called Devil’s Pocket, near Center City. Entitled, In Tasker, It’s About to Stop, the column mentioned the death of a 21-year-old male.
After the column was published, Dexter got a call from the victim’s mother, angry that he had called her son a "doper" in print. The victim’s brother, a bartender in Grays Ferry, was also on the line with the mother demanding that Dexter retract everything he wrote. Dexter refused to do that but offered to meet the bartender personally at his bar, where they could chat and iron things out.
The column began: "A couple of weeks ago, a kid named Buddy Lego was found dead in Cobbs Creek. It was a Sunday afternoon. He was from the neighborhood, a good athlete, a nice kid. Stoned all the time. The kind of kid you think you could have saved."
When Dexter went to the bar, he introduced himself to the bartender, making it clear he wasn’t going to retract anything. At this point, the scenario gets fuzzy. Dexter says that somebody hit him from behind, knocking out some of his teeth. Later reports have the bartender attacking him with a cue stick.
Dazed and bloodied, the columnist went home and contacted his prizefighter friend, Randall "Tex" Cobb, and a few others, and they all decided to go back to the bar and protect Dexter during another attempt to "reason" with the bartender.
But as soon as they entered the bar, Dexter would recall in interviews that an ugly, fat, red-haired guy ran out, and then came back with numerous men with tire irons, nightsticks and a baseball bat. Since you cannot reason with tigers, sometimes the only thing to do is strike while the iron is hot. But for Dexter, Cobb and friends, it was too late to defend themselves and spring into action. There were just too many people to fight.
The 38-year-old columnist was out cold on the sidewalk, and Cobb had been injured as well. The rest of the group took off. Dexter suffered a broken pelvis, a brain hemorrhage, a concussion and plenty of nerve damage to his hands. But his troubles were just beginning: During surgery, there had been a problem with the anesthesia, so that while it appeared that Dexter was totally unconscious, he was simply completely paralyzed. He could feel the surgeon drilling into his leg, but he was unable to do anything about it. What saved the day was the fact that his heart was beating furiously, alerting the surgical crew to his consciousness. After that, he was numbed sufficiently
Dexter said the horrendous pain he felt would have driven a lot of people to the nut-house. While recovering from the incident, he started work on his first novel, God’s Pocket.
The incident would pave the way for his move to Sacramento from Philly. In 1986, he wrote his last column for the Daily News:
"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."
In Sacramento, he started a new life as a columnist for The Sacramento Bee, then proceeded to write a series of ground breaking novels, beginning with Deadwood in 1986; Paris Trout, 1988 (which won the 1988 U. S. National Book Award); Brotherly Love, 1991; The Paperboy, 1995; Train, 2003; and Spooner, 2009. Three of his best newspaper columns were also included in Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns, which also featured the works of Jimmy Breslin, Will Rogers, and Walter Lippmann.
His years as a columnist paid off, because when he’d work on his novels, he would write two pages—or 900 words—per day, as per his erstwhile columnist routine. He admits his books are pretty dark, but he also says he doesn’t "walk around like that all the time."
His novel Spooner has been compared to Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and even the works of Mark Twain. It’s not often that you hear the name Thomas Wolfe these days. Of course, it was the very tall Wolfe who used to write in longhand on long yellow legal tablets while standing up and using the top of his refrigerator as a desk top.
Wolfe would then take the completed manuscript—boxes of these legal tablets filled with his cursive scribble—into the office of his publisher, Thomas Scribner, who would then hand it to a secretary to type out.
Dexter likes to write at night, when it is quiet. He writes everyday, unlike some writers who can go for weeks and even months at a time without writing anything.
Regarding Spooner, Dexter says that he hates the word "memoir," adding that the novel is "more true than a memoir would have been," and that the story "kind of follows a lot of the places, characters, and events in my life." This includes the characterization of his stepfather, whom Dexter says he keeps dreaming about. In Spooner, there’s a saintly character named Calmer, an old South Dakota name, who, in many ways, represents the figure of his stepfather.
In Dexter’s fourth novel, Brotherly Love, about a power hungry union boss with Mafia connections, the staccato prose style is reminiscent of the feel of a screenplay. The novel captures the underbelly thug-culture of the world of roofers and amateur Mafiosos. The prose is not for the faint of heart:
"A week to the day after Bobby is left in a garbage bag on the service road at the airport, Michael climbs through the kitchen window of a small brick tow house on Snyder Avenue—Leonard Crawley boosting him up, Monk already waiting inside—and takes the old Italian who lives there out of his bed, a confused old man who cannot see them without his glasses, and tapes him to the water heater in the basement."
"His wife finds him there, his socks sticking halfway out of his mouth, when she comes back from Levittown. She has been there visiting her grandchildren. The bats they used, stained with the old man’s blood, are still lying on the basement floor."
"Peter reads the details of the old man’s death in the Daily News. It says he was naked."
When writing a novel, Dexter says he has the feeling that he is not in control.
"When I start a book, it’s usually with just a character in mind, something small, and then I feel like I’m an observer, watching things. The book goes its own direction, don’t try to steer it … I’m not one of those people who outline plots."
Dexter believe that writers should write to entertain audiences—"If not, what is it for?"—but agrees that it’s impossible to predict the marketplace or what the public will like. In one interview, he came down hard on Dan Brown, who "sells a billion books, but can’t write a line." Dexter says he’s never walked into an airport or an airplane and seen somebody reading one of his books, whereas he’s seen people reading Dan Brown.
His encounter in Devil’s Pocket marked him for life. The experience changed his taste perception; alcohol, for instance, now tastes "like battery acid," so he sticks to just an occasional beer when he goes out with his wife, Dian. He says he doesn’t miss Philly when it comes to the traffic, the noise, and waiting in line.
"People don’t realize how much of their lives they spend doing that stuff," he said.
The perfect life, he says, would be to transport himself to Philly for three hours a day, get a soft pretzel, and then leave.