Let It Bleed

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

Staring out at the lush green foliage, Dexter bends his knees up to his chest and falls silent. Finally, he confides, “If I had to do it all over again, I’d have just ignored them. I wouldn’t have gone down to the bar. It was a half-assed column, but I had it right.”

Presently occupied with his eighth novel—set in the 1930s, about a small traveling circus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—Dexter, 68, says the brawl helped shape his understanding of the mindless violence that would become integral to his literary repertoire—powerful works that include Deadwood (1986), Paris Trout (1988), Brotherly Love (1991), The Paperboy (1995), Trai (2003) and Spooner (2009). He stopped drinking, too, as the booze, Dexter says, started to taste like battery acid.

Not long after the fight, he began his first novel, God’s Pocket (1983), about the killing of a despised construction worker, set in an incestuous, blue-collar south Philadelphia neighborhood. As for Cobb, who suffered a broken arm during the melee, Dexter says sadly, “He was never the same fighter again.”

Dexter is a throwback to a day when big-city columnists' prose all but rose from the cracks of the sidewalks—or subways.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News
Dexter is a throwback to a day when big-city columnists' prose all but rose from the cracks of the sidewalks—or subways.

Dexter recently entered a veritable Hall of Fame of column writers when three of his finely wrought creations were included in Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns. In the newly released collection, which has drawn rave reviews, Dexter’s work appears alongside that of such titans as Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, Walter Lippmann, Hunter S. Thompson, H.L. Mencken and Will Rogers.

One column chosen for the book—edited by John Avlon, Jesse Angelo and Errol Louis—is titled “Head In a Box,” a seriocomic turn Dexter wrote for the Daily News in 1982 about a couple of parking-meter repairmen, Tony and Jose, who, while making their rounds on Germantown Avenue one afternoon, stumble upon a white paper sack with a human head inside.

From the column: “Tony shrugs, and Jose opens it carefully, not wanting to damage a real nice paper sack, and looks inside. Tony waits. Jose just stares inside the sack. ‘Hey, Tony,’ he says after a minute, ‘there’s a head inside this paper sack.’”

“‘A what?’”

“‘It’s not a coconut, Tony. It’s a head.’ And Jose sees that his boss doesn’t believe him, so he reaches in the sack and pulls the head out. A human skull. The jaw bone is missing and so are the teeth, but outside of that, it is perfect. ‘It’s not a coconut,’ Jose says again.”

Vintage Dexter storytelling: “cold-eyed and funny,” as the back-of-the-book credits for Deadline Artists state.

“He saw the human condition in ways most of us don’t see. He had—and still has—an extraordinary eye and an extraordinary ear,” observes David Lawrence, former managing editor of the Philadelphia Daily News. It was Lawrence, later a distinguished publisher of The Miami Herald, who in 1974 tracked down Dexter at the South Florida service station where he was pumping gas and offered him a reporter’s job. “He was a stunning talent, but something of a loose cannon.”

A rum-swilling Dexter drank Philly under the table at Dirty Frank’s, McGlinchey’s and Doc Watson’s. He once threatened to drown a city editor in a pot of chili. He collected bets on whether a case of beer could be thrown across Pine Street. He’d loan the company car to Cobb, who sometimes forgot to bring it back. Dexter split with his first wife because she didn’t see the devilish humor in his bringing a bear into her bedroom, then leaving the room and closing the door. After all, Dexter reasoned, the bear was tame.

In spare, strong prose—elegant in its “exquisite stripped-to-the-bone style . . . the violence shimmering off of virtually every word like heat off fresh road kill,” as writer Buzz Bissinger described it in a review of Dexter’s 2007 collection of columns, Paper Trails—Dexter’s pieces chronicled loneliness and cruelty, the folly of life itself.

He wrote about old drunks, nut-brained desperadoes and screwballs such as Jack Walsh of Trenton, New Jersey, who called Dexter at a bar one night claiming he could survive a 4-ton truck sitting on his stomach for 10 full seconds. And Dexter couldn’t resist regaling his readers with slap-happy stories of Mickey Rosati’s Gym, where the 155-pound scribe with bad legs indulged his love of boxing and more than once got his nose bloodied sparring with Cobb. (“It’s a shame people get hurt, but there’s a beauty to it,” says Dexter. “It works you out in ways gym rats could never imagine.”)

A keen-eyed, unsentimental observer, “outraged by cruelty, but never surprised,” as Pete Hamill, author and onetime hard-drinking New York City newsman, wrote of him, Dexter penned 900-word columns three times a week for Philly’s afternoon tabloid. There was the homeless man crushed by a 300-ton crane; the boy who gave up having sexual intercourse with dogs; a paean to the genius of baseball analyst Tim McCarver; and a sweet little piece on how he taught his daughter, Casey, the way chickens lay eggs by shoving one down Mrs. Dexter’s pants.

In an email, former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez writes of Dexter, “He’s the best I’ve ever read. He’s the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself.”

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