Let It Bleed

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

“Yeah, I’ve drank bathtubs full of hooch, but I never craved it,” he says. “I didn’t drink because I was depressed or anything. I used it because funny things tended to develop when I was drinking. It took me awhile to see how repetitive it is, how people do and say the same things at a bar,” says Dexter. “Now, maybe I’ll have a drink, maybe a beer once a month at the most, when me and Dian go out.”

In a subsequent interview, Dexter concedes, “I had a strange relationship with the bottle. I never met anyone who drank as often as I did, but who did it purely for recreation. To me, going to the bar was like going to the circus every day.”

Dexter, a half-orphaned kid raised in South Dakota and Illinois, is round-shouldered and no heavier than the 155 or so pounds he weighed back when he danced around the ring with Cobb. His body has taken its share of lumps through the years: broken bones, “six or seven” hip replacements, and bum legs that have grown increasingly fragile since he was hurt playing football at the University of South Dakota.

Dexter now lives on tranquil island near Seattle, where he initially found himself "full of juice [with] no place to shoot it." Yet he claims to no longer miss the newspaper industry.
Dian Dexter
Dexter now lives on tranquil island near Seattle, where he initially found himself "full of juice [with] no place to shoot it." Yet he claims to no longer miss the newspaper industry.
One of Dexter's more memorable yarns involves a dog named Lucky Al who feasts on his dead owner's remains in a bathtub.
Courtesy of the Philadelphia Daily News
One of Dexter's more memorable yarns involves a dog named Lucky Al who feasts on his dead owner's remains in a bathtub.

He’s still getting over a mysterious viral infection that landed him in a Tucson, Arizona, hospital for 10 weeks late last year. (He and Dian escape the cold and rain most of the fall and winter, returning to their getaway in Tubac, a tiny arts community 45 miles south of Tucson.)

“I got bit by my daughter’s puppy and got horribly sick,” he says. “I’m not quite the same now. It sapped my strength and kind of ate my rotator cuff. I can work, but I can’t work as fast as I used to.”

The work presently at hand is the next novel, which centers on an elephant named Blossom—the book’s working title—who performs in a small traveling circus. Dexter won’t say much more than that, mainly because he’s not sure where the project is heading.

“I got 300 pages right now that have nothing to do with one another. I’m really not sure what it is yet. I figure by this time next year, I’ll have a shape to it. Right now, I just keep starting over again with a completely new set of characters. I haven’t even got to the elephant yet.”

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, 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 featuring 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.”

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.”

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