By Brian Feinzimer
By Charles Lam
By Joel Beers
By LP Hastings
By Dave Barton
By LP Hastings
By Joel Beers
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.
Dexter’s respect for Russo is mutual. In an email, 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 6, 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,” says Dexter. “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.
“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 South Dakota’s Sioux Falls 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, recalls Dexter. 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,” says Dexter. “I guess one of my great sorrows is that he wasn’t there when things went really right for me.”
Sometimes, says Dexter, 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.”