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Gil Spencer, the much-adored editor at the Philadelphia Daily News and later the New York Daily News, knew how to get the best out of his loose cannons, especially ones able to craft sharp-edged narratives as was Dexter. It was Spencer who gave Dexter the chance to write a column in 1976. (It was also in 1976 that Dexter voted for Morris Udall in the presidential primary. He’s written him in ever since for president, even though the Arizona representative died in 1998.)
Spencer died this past June at age 85, and Dexter still grieves. “He was one of the best people I’ve ever known,” he says quietly. “The world has gotten a whole lot less interesting since he died.”
The death of Dexter’s stepfather also hit him hard, a key reason he spent so much time pouring his guts into Spooner, the book of which he’s proudest. It took Dexter four years to write this sprawling, touching novel about the many misadventures of a wayward soul.
Title character Warren Spooner’s fictional life closely resembles Dexter’s real one: His father dies when he’s 2; he spends his early childhood in Milledgeville, Georgia, and the Midwest; he’s an incorrigible kid raised by a nurturing stepfather (the fictional Calmer Ottosson) with inexhaustible patience; he works a series of low-paying jobs, drinks to excess, endures a failed first marriage, and goes on to a newspaper career in Florida, and then a successful column and happy second marriage in Philadelphia.
And, like Dexter, Spooner is beaten up by hooligans enraged by a column he wrote: “To Spooner’s huge relief, he looked up into the night sky, and found it full of Stanley’s remarkable face. That boneless nose. ‘Another night in the life of a big-city columnist,’ Stanley said, and picked Spooner up off the street with his good right arm. Spooner achieved verticality, but noticed that one of his legs had ceased to function. Absolutely would not move.
“‘We got to go,’ Stanley said.”
Of his writing regimen, Dexter says, “It’s work. You’re pulling stuff out, like I did with Spooner, that doesn’t want to come out. The only time I really enjoyed the process was writing Spooner. I didn’t want it to end.”
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.”
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