Pete Dexter: A Writer Who Makes Writers Want To Give Up

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Pete Dexter was a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News for close to ten years, from the late Seventies through the mid-Eighties. He wasn't just any old columnist but one of the most original we've ever had. His columns often read like short stories so it's no surprise that he went on to write novels—his third book, Paris Trout won the National Book Award—and screenplays. If you're looking for a stylistic comparison, think Flannery O'Connor.

"He's the best I've ever read," former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Steve Lopez told Ellis E. Conklin. "He's the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself. Dexter writes a sentence that sits on the page like a fist, and you can't even begin to break it down, to figure out where its power is or how he constructed it, or even thought of it. It's just there."

"He's some kind of genius," the late Richard Ben Cramer once told me. "He's just ferocious."

Take, for instance, the lede to a story he once wrote on LeeRoy Yarbrough for Inside Sports:

The child in the child is somehow faded. She is eight years old but there is nothing in her manner to say she isn’t nineteen, with a house full of screaming babies and a high school sweetheart who doesn’t always come home at night anymore.

She walks the front yard like walking is already a chore, collecting the mongrel puppies. There are nine of them and her fingers disappear into the long coats as she picks them up, then puts them in a cardboard box next to the front door.

The house is a shack, about a block from the abandoned half-mile dirt track where LeeRoy Yarbrough, the most famous man ever to come out of west Jacksonville, Florida, got his start racing automobiles. About three blocks from the place where, a month before, cold sober, he tried to strangle his own mother.

“He live right up that road there,” she says, pointing a puppy. “Him and Miz Yarbrough, but they ain’t there now. Everybody knows LeeRoy, sometime he come by and sit on the steps, but now he wrung Miz Yarbrough’s neck, he ain’t home no more.”

The screen door opens and a woman in white socks steps halfway out the door. Missing teeth and a face as narrow as the phone book. “You git them puppies up yet? You know what your daddy tol’ you.”

The door slams shut, but the woman stays there, behind it in the shadows. In west Jacksonville it always feels like there’s somebody watching behind the screen door.

“We got to take the puppies down to the lake,” the girl says. “Daddy got back from the country [farm] and says so. He goin’ take them out to the lake with him tonight.”

I ask her why she just didn’t give the puppies away. She shakes her head. “I tol’ you,” she says. “Daddy got back from the country.”

I’m going to tell you right here that I don’t know what picked LeeRoy Yarbrough off the top of his world in 1969 and delivered him, eleven years later, to the night when he would get up off a living room chair and tell his mother, “I hate to do this to you,” and then try to kill her. I can tell you some of how it happened, I can tell you what the doctors said, what his people said. But I don’t know why.

It has business with that little girl and her puppies, though. With not looking at what you don’t want to see, putting it off until you are face-to-face with something unspeakable.

And tonight those nine puppies go to the bottom of the lake.

Dexter's collected non-fiction appears in Paper Trails, recently released in paperback. It's a must-read.

Dexter was good pals with Randall "Tex" Cobb, a heavyweight contender and later, an actor. You should know this because when anyone mentions Dexter they talk about the night he almost lost his life in Devil's Pocket. In a bar. That was the night Cobb saved his life and it was also the night that Cobb broke an arm, which may have prevented him from ever winning the heavyweight title.

Any profile you read on Dexter mentions the fight—the two best that I've read come from Ellis, and Steve Volk. Dexter wrote about that night in his fiction—first, in his debut novel, God's Pocket (1983) and more extensively in his last novel, Spooner.

The first time he wrote about it, however, was in a column, the one featured below, almost a year after the incident occurred. This was in late November of 1982 and Dexter was in Houston to watch his pal Cobb fight Larry Holmes for the heavyweight championship of the world. Dexter wrote three columns leading up to the event and another one when it was finished.

With the author's permission we're going to run all four in this space. That will follow next week with a Q&A with Dexter on Paper Trails and his life in as a newspaperman.