This story is over 5 years old.

The Fiction Issue 2009

Pete Dexter

Besides writing hard-edged, blackly funny, and beautifully observed novels, Pete Dexter has spent a lot of time boxing, and he once got beaten so badly by an angry mob in Philadelphia that his back was broken.

Interview By Jesse Pearson, Photos By Kyle Johnson

Pete Dexter is a tough son of a bitch with the kind heart of a natural humorist. Besides writing hard-edged, blackly funny, and beautifully observed novels, he’s spent a lot of time boxing for exercise and fun, and he once got beaten so badly by an angry mob in Philadelphia that his back was broken. He then (due to a botched administration of anesthetic) underwent the ensuing surgery paralyzed and mute but wide-awake and decidedly not numbed. This is the kind of stuff that could literally kill someone without the amount of heart that Dexter has. After that incident, he left his career as a newspaper columnist and turned to writing fiction, starting with 1983’s God’s Pocket. His second book, Deadwood, came out in 1986 and still reigns as one of the greatest westerns ever written. Using real historical figures as its characters, the book is a brutal snapshot of a short and strange era in US history: the gold rush in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. Now, as you may know, the setting, principal players, many of the incidents, and the actual title of the book were all applied, without Dexter’s involvement, to an HBO series that is worlds different in tone, intent, and outlook. For the record, we believe that the better Deadwood, the real Deadwood, lives in Dexter’s imagining of it. We strongly suggest you read it. Dexter has since published six other novels, including the 1988 National Book Award winner Paris Trout. He also put out, two years ago, the collection Paper Trails, in which many of his best columns can be found in one volume that makes us long for the days when newspaper writers were allowed to use their brains and their wit—often at the same time. Now Dexter has put out the sprawling new novel Spooner. It has the scope and quasi-autobiographical feel of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel along with the biting observational skills of a Mark Twain or an Ambrose Bierce. And though in a way it feels like the sort of novel that Americans aren’t writing much nowadays, and even though we just used some very old reference points to describe it, Spooner is also completely contemporary in execution. It’s vibrant, hilarious, moving, and sad. In short, it’s a great one. Vice recently spoke with Pete Dexter from his secluded home on the foggy banks of the Puget Sound. We were actually a little nervous to call up a guy who’s been through the things and written the kind of books that Dexter has, but we were happily surprised to find on the other end of the line one of the sweetest-natured and most generous subjects we’ve had the pleasure to speak with. Vice: There’s a great deal of your personal history in this book, and a great deal of fiction too. Would you say that Spooner walks the line between memoir and novel?
Pete Dexter: I would reject that. I hate that word, “memoir,” but if I were going to do one, well, you’d know it. Spooner is not less true than a memoir. Probably it’s more true than a memoir would have been. It kind of follows a lot of the places, characters, and events in my life, but I felt no obligation to follow the truth about things when something else would look better. I mean, my stepdad died 30 years ago. I guess I was 35. My mother is the one that lasted. Yet in the novel it’s reversed, and your stepfather lives much longer. So let’s say that elements of your biography are in there, but there are embellishments and moments that are like compressions of real events. But I still often found myself wondering how much of it is you, and where you found the line between things that really happened and fiction. Just for an example, the main character in Spooner wrote a novel called Deadwood, just like you did in real life.
Yeah. And that scene with Margaret Truman— That’s a funny scene. You’re reading after her at a Philadelphia high-society event, and you choose this really dirty passage from Deadwood.
And everyone stampeded to get out of the door. So, yes, there are set pieces in there, as they call them in the movie industry, that are accurate reflections of things that really happened. Then I would go from there to the next thing without feeling any obligation to the truth. What was the initial thing that made you want to write this book? Was it something from your own life or was it the idea of the relationship between a stepfather and a child? You know, was there a start to this book that’s identifiable for you?
I guess the center of the book is the character of Calmer, the stepdad. Who was based on your own stepfather.
I’ve never met anybody else like him, and I’ve lived a long time and at a pretty high speed. The first book I ever wrote was dedicated to him, and he was already dead then. But I guess I’ve always sort of gravitated toward him. To this day, I dream about him. I never dream about my mother. It just didn’t seem surprising to me that he was who I was suddenly writing about. Do the plots or subjects of your novels often take you by surprise?
Well, I don’t plot things ahead. I just rub two sticks together and get the least little bit of heat, and then I’ll see where it goes. But once this one was moving along, I could see that it was something that had been waiting to come out for a while. The character of Calmer, he’s almost like a saint or something.
Yeah, he is, isn’t he? How close is that to the truth of your stepfather?
That’s the truest thing in the book. But not everything that happens to him in the book is true to his real life. That whole thing in the beginning of the book, with the naval career and shit, something like that did happen to somebody I know, but it wasn’t my stepdad. But I’m guessing your stepfather did have a military career.
Yes. Back in the Second World War he was threatened with a court martial for refusing to take a company of people across a river. He was threatened with all kinds of military discipline. And then the colonel who was making these threats put somebody else in charge, you know, who would take these guys across the river, and a bunch of them drowned. Wow.
You can imagine the ass covering that followed that— Which can really be the way of military commanders. I don’t want to come off like a shrink or something here, but how did it feel for you to sort of extend your stepfather’s life through fiction?
It’s the closest thing to a happy ending that I’ve written. Yeah. I love that full-circle thing with him, where he’s out in the field with the old neighbor, trying to make the bullets come down on his head like he did when he was a kid. People will have to read the novel to really know what that means, but it felt very satisfying and peaceful to me.
Me too. If I could have had things my own way, that’s the way they would have been. But he died when he was 60 or 61, and he’d spent his whole life doing the kinds of things that had to be done or should have been done. He was a very selfless person—he never asked anything more than the affection of his kids and his wife. But, well, you know. The more you take on in the world, the more people expect you to take on. Yeah, the more it asks of you. Yeah.
And the more you do, the more it’s just accepted that this is what you’re going to do. It pretty much disproves any concept of karmic justice.
You keep hoping that there is such a thing and that in the end everything becomes clear and people see who you are and who they are. But that doesn’t happen. It just doesn’t. There’s no final justice in any of this shit, at least not that I’ve seen yet. Ugh.
But you’re talking to me in a really dark mood. I’m usually a little happier than this. Are you?
I’m just sleep deprived right now. You don’t seem any darker to me than you do in your books.
Well, the books are pretty dark. I don’t walk around like that all the time. I’ve read your collected newspaper columns also, and I find those to be a lot more lighthearted than your novels.
The way they do it now, where a columnist is published once a week or something, they can hide who they are. But back in the days when newspaper columnists wrote three or four or five times a week, you couldn’t begin to hide who you were. A pose exposes itself. It’s useless to even try. And so the columns are essentially a better barometer of my disposition. I don’t know very many people who have had as much fun as I had, or were as happy in life. Early on in Spooner, the narrator has a Mark Twain sort of a voice, or maybe it’s more like the Stage Manager character in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It’s folksy but wise, and omniscient.
Yeah, I know the voice you’re talking about. Was there a character to the narrator in your head? I mean, was it purely you? As I read, I kept saying to myself, “Who’s the narrator?”
It’s just third person. By that I mean the big third person. A lot of that is presented in the way things look. When you’re drawing a character, when you see something through them, you have to be sure that that character is capable of that thought or that view. Right.
And a lot of times, the way people look at things, their descriptions of things, tells you more about who they are than any kind of a narrator could. How well do you know your characters when you start out to write a novel? Do they develop the same way the narrative does for you, which you said is just kind of on faith?
Yeah, usually. Obviously I know Calmer and Spooner, although they sometimes surprised me. I’ve heard a lot of writers say that sometimes novels take on a life of their own, and I’ve heard other writers say that that’s just bullshit and that doesn’t happen and you’re always in control.
It’s not bullshit. I don’t ever feel like I’m in control. I love that thought, but I’m trying to understand how it works.
It’s like you’re writing and you get to a place or an event and you sit back and think about who the guy is and how he reacts to it. You don’t know what that reaction is going to be until you actually think about the guy, put yourself in the guy, and then think about the circumstance. And then you see, and the choice he makes there leads to all his other choices. In that way, it’s kind of like life. Now, the opposite of this is these guys who plot their books in the beginning. I couldn’t write a book like that. It would bore me to death. This is a problem in screenwriting too. That’s been made into this weird algebraic thing, where it’s like, “Three minutes in, this has to happen. Twenty-seven minutes in, this has to happen.”
You get 12 guys around a table, eight of whom are afraid that they’re losing their jobs, and they’re looking at a script and they start doing what you’re talking about. “There’s got to be more x, y, or z here.” They want to plug all these things in even though they don’t fit, and that’s why you see so many movies that look like other movies. Right.
Because eight guys are worried about losing their jobs. But I’ve got no idea how you’d maintain any kind of spontaneity, even within the personalities of the characters, if you had the whole thing plotted out ahead of time. If it’s any kind of a story at all, it grows as you write it. The characters grow in ways that I can’t possibly anticipate at the beginning of things. As well as I know the story of my stepdad and me, if you’d asked me four years ago, before this book really got going, what it would be about and I had to guess, I promise you that three-fourths of the stuff I guessed would be wrong. So you have to let the narrative guide you as you write it.
If you can anticipate to the end in any way beyond, you know, the feeling, then I think you’re kind of cheating yourself as a writer. Things happen that ought to be allowed to happen. It also seems more courageous and maybe pure to write like that.
To me, it’s more economical. When you follow the story, as opposed to leading it, you’re less likely to make huge mistakes. You used a good word when you said “pure” because, if you follow the story, the things that you write will be purely of the story and of the characters. Even if today you look at yesterday’s work and can’t use it, there are still going to be things in there—if you followed the rules—that are useful to you. As I was reading the first section of this book, the one about Spooner’s childhood, I was just seeing disaster. He’s kind of a fucked-up kid. Or at least he’s eccentric.
Yeah, I think “fucked up” is right. That works?
I think that’s pretty much on the line, yeah. He breaks into his neighbors’ houses at night to piss in their shoes. So I was thinking that he was going to end up a complete reprobate, but then there’s this really interesting jump around chapter 31 or so, where suddenly we’re in Philadelphia and Spooner is grown and he’s become a newspaper writer, like you were.
Yes. And then there’s a lot of honor at the end of the book in the way Spooner is conducting himself. I mean, he’s still befuddled and he still makes mistakes, but there’s a feeling of redemption or satisfaction. I don’t really have a question here, I guess.
No, I mean, you’re a good reader. I wish that the woman who reviewed the book for the New York Times had been this good a reader. Their review of Spooner was clearly positive, but it also didn’t go deep.
But yeah, you’re right on it. I mean, that’s what it’s about. The redemption thing?
And also the impossibility of that redemption, because he’s trying to redeem himself, he’s doing what he can, but he’s still Spooner and his stepdad is still Calmer, and in the end, I mean, what he wants is to know if he’s become somebody that Calmer admires. There are a lot of self-destructive urges going on in the character of Spooner. Like we talked about earlier, there’s the choice of reading the passage from Deadwood about a pile of jizz on the floor after Margaret Truman reads. Then, of course, there’s the scene where Spooner is beaten almost to death by a mob of angry Philadelphians, and that is something that really did happen to you. So are the self-destructive urges that are in Spooner autobiographical?
I mean, Spooner goes into probably the worst neighborhood in Philadelphia at that time… The Devil’s Pocket.
Yeah, and he walks into that place knowing what’s in there. I remember hearing that story when I was a kid in the Philadelphia suburbs. Now, you went back to that bar twice that night, and it seems like there are these two different urges that took you there each time. The first time, if I’m not mistaken, you were looking to maybe set it right between you and the brother of a dead man you’d written about in the paper. The guy was unhappy with what had been said in the article, and he was threatening you.
Yeah. And so you go to the place where he’s a bartender, and you get viciously attacked. Many of your teeth are sheared off at the gum line with a pool cue, and you leave and gather some people, and then the second time that night, a darker urge takes you back to that bar.
Yeah, but it’s not what you think. I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just wasn’t going to hide behind a newspaper while this guy threatened me. Part of the deal in going back was just explain to this guy that nobody’s safe, that he could do that shit, but— Right, that’s in the novel too. Spooner seems to want to demonstrate a point, not actually retaliate with more violence. But you did come back with Tex Cobb, your very tough boxer friend.
But even though Cobb and I could have gone into that place and just turned it into a parking lot and put them all in the hospital and left, which would have taken all of 30 seconds, that was never my intention going back over there. I was just trying to say to the guys in that bar that even though they were in their part of the city and they could do what they wanted to, that other things were possible. But it was all kind of a tangled point, as Mr. Cobb pointed out. Right, he was kind of like, “Well, what are we doing here?” while you were still pretty muddled from the earlier beating.
I mean, it was in my head going back over there that something might happen but, you know, it was obviously going to turn out differently from the first time. But then I got in there and realized that what I was doing was every bit as chickenshit as what they’d done. And maybe you stood there thinking it through a little bit too long.
You know, “he who hesitates” or whatever they say. And then the whole gang showed up. When you showed up, someone snuck out of the bar and alerted the neighborhood, and a mob showed up, out for your blood. You ended up with extensive injuries, including a broken back.
Yeah. But as I try to make clear in the book, that wasn’t the part of this whole episode that really had much impact on me. The whole deal is really what happened later in the hospital, on the operating table. That’s just terrifying. They had you opened up and were putting you back together at the hospital, but the anesthesia didn’t work and so you were basically paralyzed, but not numbed.
Yeah. I had five or six screws put into me, and yes, I was paralyzed. I couldn’t move a finger. Shit, it’s been 25 years now and I still flash back on it. I’ve heard about people who’ve gone into the nuthouse when this has happened to them, and I can understand it. But you know, the only way, in the end, to deal with it is how you deal with anything else, which is— I’m waiting for a great secret of life right now, because I don’t know how one can possibly endure major surgery without anesthesia.
You just get better. I mean, you get better physically and you make up for it somehow by having, you know, more fun afterward. You’ve got a lot of experience with boxing. I don’t think that boxing is self-destructive, but there is something in there that’s like a cousin of self-destruction when you step into the ring. Some of the drunken adventures that some people go through might have a similar kind of urge behind them.
But boxing is different if you do it every day with pretty much the same people. I had this book party in New York recently and this kid came up from the gym I used to go to in Philadelphia. In the past, I must have boxed 2,000 rounds with this guy and probably only hit him about ten times. And, you know, I love this guy, and I loved his dad. I felt like a member of their family in a way. If you go four or five rounds every day with someone, it gets kind of familiar in a way. And the adrenaline gets leveled off.
But for me it was still exciting, even though I never got any of the macho part of it. I mean, maybe the first time I had the gloves on, and the mouthpiece, it felt kind of… It feels pretty cool.
Yeah, but pretty soon, you know, it just got to be what you do every day. But I do know what you’re saying. Once in a while, somebody would come into the gym, you know, wanting somebody, and at that point the dynamic did change a little. Is boxing still a daily part of your life?
No. I have a heavy bag in the basement and maybe once a month I’ll go down there to get some cat food or something, and I’ll wrap my hands and put on the bag gloves and hit it once and then not be able to use that hand for two days. But I mean, shit, if I were in still in Philadelphia I’d still be going to the same gym. What is it like for you going back to Philadelphia now? You just went there on your tour.
Well, I think the first place I went was the gym. It’s run by a father and son, and it felt like, you know, going back to see my family. It was just great. You know, in a funny way, I miss that city. But I couldn’t live in the city even when I lived in the city. The traffic and the noise and waiting in line… People don’t realize how much of their lives they spend doing that stuff. Oh, I know.
And I couldn’t do that anymore. But boy, if there was some way that I could transport myself there for three hours a day and go visit the gym and get some soft pretzels off the street or something, I would love to. I wanted to talk a little bit about Deadwood, if that’s OK.
Sure. I love that book, and I used to wonder what, if any, was the connection to the HBO series. Then I read the introduction to your collection Paper Trails, where you make a sort of quick reference to sleazy cable producers stealing ideas, and I was like, “Oh no.” Did they never contact you or try to get you involved in that show?
No. And I mean, they obviously stole at least the first scene from the book. The guy who took credit was the producer, some guy named… David Milch.
Milch, yeah. And you know, there are pieces about him in the New Yorker and stuff. His take was that he had been wanting to do a western forever. He had everything available about that area and that time but had somehow missed the novel. Which came out over a decade before he started working on the show, which has the same title as the show, and which has the same historical characters—Swearengen, Bullock, Sol Star, and so on, though represented very differently—as the show.
They can say it’s all historical, and so it’s all just a coincidence, but they’d have a hard time explaining the way Charlie Utter is so prominent in their show, because in the history of the West, he was just a dot. I turned him into a major character of my book. Then they made Charlie exactly the same way I did, only they gave him an English accent so you wouldn’t know that they’d stolen it. When the series came out, nobody would do anything. I got hold of a lawyer to find out how much it would cost to sue them and it was— Astronomical.
Yeah. HBO has got the deep pockets. Going against them would be a war of attrition, probably.
Yeah. I’m not interested in that. And then I got calls once in a while, newspapers wanting to know about the language. The profanity on the TV series?
Yeah. People made a really big deal out of the fact that they cursed a lot.
The reason they had to put “motherfucker” in there every other word was because it worked on The Sopranos. But if you said that shit back in the 1870s in the Dakota Territory, you’d get shot in the head for it. How did you start thinking about that era and that place as a setting for a novel?
I’m from South Dakota and I’ve always been drawn to the Black Hills. I found that period of time interesting because gold was coming out of the ground, and earlier in that same year that Hickok was killed, Custer was murdered. Half of the famous people in the world came through there in that period of time. There was a lot to be explored there. What was the experience of winning the National Book Award for your novel Paris Trout like?
It sure makes for a nice night, I’ll tell you that. What do these prizes really mean, anyway?
People use them to identify you, in a way. And maybe they sell some books.
Yeah, they sell some books and they certainly move you up on the pay scale some. But in the end, the book is the book, and nothing that anybody awards it is going to change what’s in it. But it’s a lot easier to say that when you’ve won, when they’ve given you an award, than it is when you haven’t gotten one yet. Because then people will think it’s sour grapes?
Exactly. And I know real good writers who haven’t come close, and they’re way better writers than a lot of people who have won it. This makes me think about how the New York Times ran a survey. They took a vote, like, two years ago about the best novel in the last 25 years, and they called me and I voted for a novel called Straight Man, by Richard Russo. I haven’t read that one.
Oh, it’s so much fun. To me, the first thing a novel should do is entertain, and this one is just wildly entertaining. And, you know, he’s a real good guy. You couldn’t not be a goodhearted person and write these huge, warm characters and these great, funny situations. But the New York Times, on the basis of that survey, said that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was the best novel of the last 25 years. Uh-huh.
So you just say, OK, that’s what happens when you ask a whole bunch of different people, some of whom know something about the English language and novels and some of whom don’t: “What’s the best thing written in the last 25 years?” I just think it’s a strange thing to ask in the first place. Do you ever feel cynical about being part of the publishing industry? A writer by nature is kind of independent and almost in solitary in their work, but then when the book is done, you’ve got to be a part of this machine because you want to get it out there.
Yeah, you do, and that’s the part of it that you can’t avoid, unless you want to be Salinger or somebody, who claims to have two or three of them in his safe. Right. I bet they’re great, too.
I certainly don’t feel corrupted by it or anything, but I wish it were more efficient. I think it would have been a lot better to be a novelist 50 years ago or 80 years ago—the time before everybody’s attention span went the way of television and commercials and stuff, and now all that shit on the computer. Entertainment-wise, people expect things to be brought to them and kind of served, and the idea that it might be more entertaining if you make a little effort yourself, that’s just gone completely. You might strain something if you try too hard.
It’s like that Robert Frost poem where he talks about how, growing up, the only fun he had was the fun he made for himself. That is an idea that’s so far gone now. People would look at that and say, “What, did he build his own computer?” It’s become a foreign idea that you would go out and make your own fun. Do you only write when you have a novel going?
Well, I almost always have a novel in some stage of development and, you know, I’ve usually got some kind of a screenplay thing going on. Do you write screenplays for hire? Are you working on one right now?
Yeah, it’s about the turn of the last century in New York. There was a cop named Joe Petrosino. He was the earliest guy who recognized the Mob as it was forming. Interesting guy. He was a psychopath himself. Can you do what might be called your own work at the same time as working on a screenplay?
Sometimes I do them at the same time and sometimes not. But it’s no distraction. I can close one off and pick up on the other one without any problem.

When you’re working on a novel, do you keep to a schedule?
I’m there every day. Lately I’ve been working at night, just because there’s a certain quiet. I live in quiet places, and at night there’s another degree of quiet that takes over, and so that’s when I work. I usually try to get what would amount to a newspaper column of work every day, and then I go back and fix it the next day and then write another one. That’s about 800, 900 words. Are you proud of Spooner in a way that you haven’t been about your work before?
I wouldn’t put it that way, but I have a real affection for this book. I also have an affection for Deadwood and for the newspaper novel, Paper Boy. I don’t have that affection for Paris Trout, God’s Pocket, or Train. So Paper Boy, Spooner, and Deadwood have more affection in your heart than the others?
I like those three best. I’m gladder that I wrote those. Do you know what your next novel is going to be about?
Elephants. Wow. As applied to circuses or in the wild?
What sparked it was an incident in South Dakota around the turn of the last century, where a circus came through and an elephant just went absolutely nuts and not only tore the circus up but, you know, did an awful lot of damage to the surrounding areas. Of course, the trouble with all these elephant stories is that they all end badly.