Dexter, Pete 1943–
Dexter, Pete 1943–
PERSONAL: Born 1943, in Pontiac, MI; married (divorced); married second wife, Dian; children: (second marriage) Casey. Education: Received degree from University of South Dakota, 1970. Hobbies and other interests: Boxing.
ADDRESSES: Home—1170 Markham Way, Sacramento, CA 95818. Office—Sacramento Bee, 21st and Q Streets, Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852. Agent—Esther Newberg, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
CAREER: Novelist, journalist, and columnist. West Palm Beach Post, Palm Beach, FL, reporter, 1971–72; Philadelphia Daily News, Philadelphia, PA, columnist, 1972–84; Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, CA, columnist, 1985–; has also worked as a truck driver, gas station attendant, mail sorter, construction laborer, and salesperson.
AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts grant to write poetry; National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1988, both for Paris Trout.
God's Pocket, Random House (New York, NY), 1984.
Deadwood, Random House (New York, NY), 1986.
Paris Trout, Random House (New York, NY), 1988.
Brotherly Love, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
The Paperboy, Random House (New York, NY), 1995.
Rush, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1991.
(With others) Michael, New Line Cinema, 1996.
Also author of screenplay Mulholland Falls. Contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy.
ADAPTATIONS: Dexter's work has been adapted for audiocassette.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Screenplays for Deadwood and Paris Trout; a novel.
SIDELIGHTS: National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter is noted for his novels that mix violence with humor, display a sharp ear for dialogue and an eye for local color, and contain well-rounded and often eccentric characters. An outspoken journalist with the Philadelphia Daily News for twelve years and with the Sacramento Bee since 1985, Dexter turned to writing fiction after nearly being beaten to death by readers who were infuriated by one of his Daily News columns. Thus no stranger to brutality, he focuses in his novels on how communities react to violence and murder. Dexter's first book, God's Pocket, turns on the death of an abrasive white construction worker in Philadelphia; Deadwood relates the assassination of legendary outlaw "Wild Bill" Hickok in a western gold-rush town; Paris Trout explores the aftermath of the shooting of an innocent black girl in Georgia; and The Paperboy recounts the upcoming execution of an innocent man.
Born in Michigan and raised in Georgia and South Dakota, Dexter graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1970 after attending for eight years (he would quit when the weather got cold). He secured a job as a reporter with the West Palm Beach Post but left after two years ("I wasn't the best writer there," he explained in the New York Times Book Review). He then worked at a gas station with another former Post reporter but quit ("I wasn't even the best writer in the gas station") to join the Philadelphia Daily News in 1972. A decade later he was badly beaten in a barroom brawl by baseball-bat and tire-iron-wielding denizens of a Philadelphia neighborhood who were angered by a column he had written about a drug-related murder that happened there. Dexter survived with a broken back and hip and an altered sense of taste from the blows to his head. Forced to give up his favorite pastime, drinking (beer, according to Dexter, now tastes like battery acid), he devoted his spare time to writing. The result was three critically acclaimed novels.
Dexter's first work, God's Pocket, begins with what Julius Lester in New York Times Book Review called an "auspicious comic opening": "Leon Hubbard died ten minutes into lunch break on the first Monday in May, on the construction site of the new one-story trauma wing at Holy Redeemer Hospital in South Philadelphia. One way or the other, he was going to lose the job." Drug-addict bricklayer Leon prompted his own demise when he threatened a black coworker named Lucien with a straight razor; Lucien consequently bashed Leon in the back of the head with a lead pipe. Glad to be rid of the troublemaker, the other workers and the foreman told the police it was an accidental death. This "random incident," according to Paul Gray in Time, turns "into a picaresque romp" when Leon's devoted mother, Jeanie, and her second husband, Mickey, who is constantly trying to prove his devotion to her, believe otherwise. At the grieving mother's request, Mickey must tap his underground connections to find out who killed Leon.
Reviewers of God's Pocket commended Dexter for his masterful control of comic situations, fluent prose, and idiomatic dialogue. Gray also appreciated the novel's "impressive ballast of local color," noting that the rough working-class Philadelphia neighborhood called God's Pocket "seems all too real: narrow houses, streets, lives; a place where the Hollywood Bar, the social hub of the area, does 'half its business before noon.'" Some critics, however, criticized God's Pocket for being too ambitious. Gray, for instance, complained that Dexter "piles on more complications and coincidences than his novel ought to carry" and added that there are too many characters and subplots. Mickey, for example, in addition to having to please Jeanie by identifying Leon's murderer, must raise six thousand dollars to bury him in a mahogany casket. But because he cannot pay the undertaker for the funeral due to his losing efforts at the racetrack, Mickey is forced to drive Leon's embalmed corpse around in his refrigerated meat truck, which he uses to sell stolen meat for his two-bit mobster boss. For another subplot Dexter created Richard Shellburn, an alcoholic Philadelphia newspaper columnist who is also suspicious of Leon's mysterious demise. Shellburn is later beaten to death by the threatened residents of God's Pocket.
Dexter's second novel, Deadwood, focuses on the death of American folk hero James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok. In the novel, Hickok, his longtime partner "Colorado" Charley Utter, and follower Malcolm Nash escort a wagon train of prostitutes to the Dakota gold rush town of Deadwood in 1876. Hickok, once renowned as the best pistol shot in the West, is now an aging Wild West-show performer who drinks to overcome the pain of syphilis. About a third of the way into Deadwood he is shot to death by a hired killer while playing poker in a saloon. "The rest of this hilarious and rousing novel," according to Dennis Drabelle in Chicago's Tribune Books, concerns itself with how "the other characters cope with [Hickok's] transformation from living to dead legend."
New York Times Book Review contributor Ron Hansen remarked that after his hero's death Dexter fills the pages of the novel with "some intriguingly extravagant minor characters." Populating Dexter's town of Dead-wood are China Doll, a prostitute seeking revenge on Utter for burning the corpse of her brother; her pimp, Al Swearingen, who brutally rapes Nash; "Calamity" Jane Cannery, who claims that she is the widow of Hickok; and trapeze artist Agnes Lake, Hickok's true widow, who befriends Cannery. "All of them become threads in the tapestry of Deadwood," Drabelle noted, "and the town itself becomes the protagonist."
Critics praised Deadwood for its local color, shrewd characterization, and deftly handled bawdy situations. "Deadwood is unpredictable, hyperbolic and, page after page, uproarious," Hansen attested. It is "a joshing book written in high spirits and a raw appreciation for the past." "The writing is engagingly colloquial without being silly, and well suited to the multiple character points of view," Village Voice contributor M. George Stevenson assessed. "And the book is very funny and filled with wry observations about the surfaces of frontier life." "With its stylish humor and convincing demonstration of how the fables of the Wild West originated," Drabelle concluded, "Deadwood may well be the best Western ever written."
Dexter received the National Book Award and was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle Award for his third book, Paris Trout. Set in the 1950s in the town of Cotton Point, Georgia, the novel concerns the amoral Paris Trout, a white hardware-store owner and loan shark to the black community who is nonetheless locally respected. When a young black man, Henry Ray Boxer, refuses to make payments on a car he bought from Trout after it was hit by a truck, Trout and a crony barge into the man's home to collect on the loan. Not finding him there, Trout shoots Boxer's mother in the back and kills a fourteen-year old girl who lives with the family.
Reluctantly, the authorities arrest, try, and sentence Trout to three years' hard labor. Convinced of his right to collect on a debt and determined not to do time for what he does not consider a crime, Trout bribes his way out of going to prison. In the aftermath he grows increasingly demented and becomes, in the words of Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Richard Eder, "a primal evil, all will and no humanity." "Before it is over," Book World contributor Judith Paterson noted, "[Trout's] unyielding conviction that everything he does is right has thrown the whole town off its moral center and exposed the link between Trout's depravity and the town's silent endorsement of all kinds of inhumanities—including racism, sexism and economic exploitation."
"If Paris Trout is about a community hamstrung by its accommodations," Eder continued, "it is also, at every moment, about the individuals caught in the accommodation. Dexter portrays them with marvelous sharpness." An increasingly paranoid Trout sleeps with a sheet of lead under his bed to shield himself from assassination and is convinced that his wife, Hanna, is trying to poison him. Hanna, a stoical schoolteacher who married Trout late in life to escape spinsterhood, is psychologically and sexually brutalized by him throughout their marriage. She consequently has an affair with Trout's gentleman defense lawyer, Harry Seagraves, who represented Trout out of social obligation but abandoned him after the trial. Hanna also hires local attorney Carl Bonner to represent her in divorce proceedings against her husband. "Perfectly offsetting graphic horror and comedy," Dean Faulkner Wells assessed in Chicago's Tribune Books, "Dexter brings all these characters together in an explosive conclusion."
"With a touch of the mastery that graces the best fiction about the South," Pete Axthelm observed in his Newsweek review of Paris Trout, "Dexter has conjured up characters stroked broadly, voices that ring true—and vignettes crafted in miniature in a way that haunts." Numerous critics mentioned similarities between Dexter and various Southern writers, claiming that his dark humor is reminiscent of the works of Flannery O'Connor and that his use of violence is Faulknerian. Dexter is quick to mention, though, that he is not a "Southern" writer (Paris Trout is his only book set in the South), but he is grateful for the praise. George Melly in New Statesman and Society, in fact, found differences between William Faulkner and Dexter. He noted that although Paris Trout is set in Faulkner's South, "it is free of Faulkner's convoluted style. The prose is taut, the feeling for time and place exact."
Dexter also denied the claim of some reviewers that Paris Trout symbolizes "racism, class war and inhumanity in the pre-civil-rights-era South," according to Glenn Collins of the New York Times. The author told the journalist that the events of Paris Trout "could have happened anywhere. The South has no lock on violence. In fact, South Philadelphia is more violent than the South." Deborah Mason in the New York Times Book Review commended Dexter for this insight, noting that "at a time when virulent racial incidents can no longer be conveniently fenced off in small Southern towns, Mr. Dexter's great accomplishment is to remind us, with lucidity and stinging frankness, the lengths to which we will go to deny our own racism and to reassure ourselves that we are innocent." Eder agreed. "The monstrousness, even of the decent people, hangs over the entire book," he confessed. "It is one of the elements that make Paris Trout a masterpiece, complex and breathtaking."
Dexter's novel Brotherly Love begins in an unlikely place—with the death of the two main characters, as reported in a newspaper article. Within the novel's remaining pages, Dexter details how the two men, Peter Flood and his cousin, Michael, grow up in Philadelphia, mature, and end up as targets of separate mob hits. Haunted by the death of his baby sister, which he was unable to prevent, Peter takes morbid thrills in jumping off buildings. He finds some release from the pain of his memories and the pressures of his life in boxing lessons. He becomes a labor racketeer for little other reason than that's what his father did. Peter has little interest in it, except that it's the "family business." Michael becomes a union leader in South Philly. Peter finds himself acting as little more than hired hand for the increasingly vicious Michael. Tired, afraid, and alarmed by Michael's cruelty, Peter finally severs the "now-destructive symbiotic relationship in a deed that caps the series of violent deaths that have gone before," wrote a Publishers Weekly reviewer. John Shaw, writing in Time, compared Brotherly Love with one of Dexter's previous novels, noting that "Though Brotherly Love is intentionally a narrower, less spacious novel than Paris Trout, its quality is just as high." A Publishers Weekly critic commented that the book is "a taut, gripping narrative that memorably examines the dark wellsprings of human behavior." Leah Rozen, writing in People, concluded, "All in all, it's an exhilarating novel."
In The Paperboy, Dexter draws on his experiences in journalism to tell the story of a pair of reporters exploring what looks like an unjust conviction—and looming execution—in Florida. The sheriff of Moat Country, Florida, Thurmond Call, is an unrepentant racist who "even by Moat county standards, had killed an inappropriate number of Negroes in the line of duty," according to narrator Jack James, recently kicked out of college and a delivery truck driver for his father's newspaper, the Miami Times. Spiraling further and further out of control, Sheriff Call stomps to death the drunk and handcuffed Jerome Van Wetter, a member of a poor, inbred family of white swamp-dwelling locals who hunt alligators and shun most contact with anyone outside their clan. Shortly after Jerome's death, Sheriff Call is found in the road near his police cruiser, gutted and dead. Another Van Wetter, Hillary, is arrested, tried, and convicted for the sheriff's murder and is sent to await his own demise on Death Row.
Four years later, investigative reporters Ward James (Jack's brother) and Yardely Acherman discover the case when Charlotte Bess, an aging beauty with a tendency to romance and become engaged to convicted men, comes to them with considerable evidence of Hillary's innocence. The two reporters sense a gross miscarriage of justice. They are sent to investigate by their employer, the Miami Times. Ward hires Jack to serve as his and Acherman's chauffeur and assistant—Jack, awed by the famed reporters, gladly agrees, since both journalists lost their driver's licenses over DWI offenses. When the trio arrives in Moat County, however, they discover a town unwilling to talk; even the Van Wetter family, mysterious and more than slightly dangerous, won't help save their kin. With persistence, and Ward's continual confrontations with belligerent sources such as the police, the locals, and the Van Wetters themselves, evidence does emerge, but it is not solid. The stylish Acherman, however, is willing to cut corners and go with what they have—and when Ward is hospitalized after a beating, Acherman simply makes up what's needed to finish the story. Hillary Van Wetter is freed, Ward and Acherman win a Pulitzer for their efforts, but the fabrications of the story are eventually discovered. Paul Gray, writing in Time, called The Paperboy "hip, hard-boiled, and filled with memorable eccentrics. The reporters' encounters with members of the Van Wetter clan comically—and ominously—juxtapose modern types with people ancient in their cunning and evil." Gilbert Taylor, writing in Booklist, observed that Dexter leaves "too many loose ends," but concluded that he "has created vibrant characters who fit snugly in their hot, languid setting." A critic from the Mystery Guide Web site remarked that The Paperboy is a "wonderful novel, which works in many ways at once: as a study of a family, as a chronicle of a town, and a psychological thriller." The novel has "a special quality seldom seen in fiction—a mesmerizing power of finality," observed Jon Saari in the Antioch Review. To reviewer Gene Lyons, writing in Entertainment Weekly, "The Paperboy is anything but a perfect novel," but he concluded, "It's a wise and fascinating tale well told."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 34, 1985, Volume 55, 1989.
Contemporary Popular Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Modern American Literature, 5th edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1999.
American Journalism Review, April, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 56.
Antioch Review, summer, 1995, Jon Saari, review of The Paperboy, pp. 375-376.
Bestsellers 89, 1989, Issue 2.
Booklist, September 1, 1991, review of Brotherly Love, p. 4; September 15, 1991, review of Brotherly Love, p. 182; April 15, 1992, Jeanette Larson, review of Brotherly Love, p. 1547; November 15, 1994, Gilbert Taylor, review of The Paperboy, pp. 555-556; January 1, 1996, review of Paris Trout, p. 788; March 15, 1996, review of The Paperboy, p. 1272.
Books, March, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 21; summer, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 27.
Bookwatch, December, 1995, review of The Paperboy (audio version), p. 3.
Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1991, Jim Bencivenga, review of Brotherly Love, p. 13; February 16, 1995, Catherine Foster, review of The Paperboy, p. 12.
Entertainment Weekly, January 27, 1995, Gene Lyons, review of The Paperboy, pp. 42-43; January 26, 1996, review of The Paperboy, p. 53; May 3, 1996, Ken Tucker, review of Mulholland Falls, p. 62.
Gentlemen's Quarterly, February, 1995, Thomas Mallon, review of The Paperboy, p. 87.
Guardian, June 20, 1993, review of Brotherly Love, p. 28.
Hudson Review, summer, 1992, Dean Flower, review of Brotherly Love, pp. 331-332.
Independent, March 27, 1993, Anthony Quinn, "Hell-raiser Who Never Met an Adjective He Liked," interview with Pete Dexter, p. 31.
Kirkus Reviews, August 1, 1991, review of Brotherly Love, p. 949; November 1, 1994, review of The Paperboy, p. 1430.
Kliatt Young Adult Paperback Book Guide, January, 1993, review of Brotherly Love, p. 6; March, 1996, review of The Paperboy, p. 8.
Law Institute Journal, December, 1996, Christ Hurley, review of The Paper Boy, pp. 60-61.
Legal Times, February 20, 1995, Joel Chineson, review of The Paperboy, p. 62.
Library Journal, October 1, 1991, Albert E. Wilhelm, review of Brotherly Love, pp. 139-140; October 1, 1991, Randy Pitman, review of Paris Trout, p. 155; February 15, 1992, Roxanna Herrick, review of Brotherly Love, p. 216; January, 1995, David Dodd, review of The Paperboy, p. 136.
London Review of Books, October 5, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 23.
Los Angeles Times, December 1, 1988.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 24, 1988; October 6, 1991; January 1, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 3.
Nation, March 10, 1984.
New Republic, May 27, 1996, Stanley Kauffmann, review of Mulholland Falls, pp. 28-29; March 3, 1997, review of Michael.
New Statesman, June 30, 1995, Nick Kimberley, review of The Paperboy, pp. 38-39; September 6, 1996, Boyd Tonkin, review of Mulholland Falls, p. 43.
New Statesman and Society, October 7, 1988, George Melly, review of Paris Trout, pp. 38-39.
Newsweek, September 26, 1988, Pete Axthelm, review of Paris Trout, p. 74.
New York, September 30, 1991, Rhoda Koenig, review of Brotherly Love, p. 75; May 13, 1996, David Denby, review of Mulholland Falls, pp. 58-59; September 30, 1991, p. 75.
New York Law Journal, June 8, 1995, Carole Shapiro, review of The Paperboy, p. 2.
New York Review of Books, February 16, 1989, Robert Towers, review of Paris Trout, pp. 18-19.
New York Times, December 5, 1988; October 4, 1991, Michiko Kakutani, review of Brotherly Love, p. C29; January 12, 1995, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of The Paperboy, p. C24.
New York Times Book Review, February 19, 1984; April 20, 1986; July 24, 1988, Deborah Mason, review of Paris Trout, pp. 7-8; October 13, 1991, Robert Stone, review of Brotherly Love, p. 3; April 19, 1992; September 6, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 24; April 4, 1993; January 22, 1995, Brent Staples, review of The Paperboy, p. 7; January 22, 1995, Barth Healey, "Interview with Pete Dexter," p. 7; June 11, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 38; December 3, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 76; January 14, 1996, review of The Paperboy, p. 28.
Observer (London, England), June 11, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 14.
People, October 21, 1991, Leah Rozen, review of Brotherly Love, pp. 31-32; January 30, 1995, Dani Shapiro, review of The Paperboy, p. 27; May 6, 1996, Ralph Novak, review of Mulholland Falls, pp. 18-19.
Publishers Weekly, May 13, 1988, p. 262; August 2, 1991, review of Brotherly Love, p. 63; October 4, 1991, Wendy Smith, "Pete Dexter: After His Roistering Lifestyle, His Career As a Novelist Is a Different Kind of Adventure," pp. 70-71; July 13, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 52; November 7, 1994, review of The Paperboy, p. 62; February 13, 1995, p. 17.
Quill & Quire, July, 1995, audio review of The Paperboy, p. 7.
Rapport, January 1, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 20; April, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 30; May, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 22.
Southern Living, March, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 142.
Spectator, November 18, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 49.
Sports Illustrated, February 23, 1987.
Time, April 2, 1984; November 4, 1991, John Shaw, review of Brotherly Love, p. A4; January 23, 1995, Paul Gray, review of The Paperboy, p. 58.
Times Educational Supplement, March 6, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 35.
Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1988, Andrew Rosenheim, review of Paris Trout, p. 1306; February 21, 1992, John Sutherland, review of Brotherly Love, p. 32; May 19, 1995, Gordon Burn, review of The Paperboy, p. 19; December 1, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 10.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), April 6, 1986; August 7, 1988; Dean Faulkner Wells, review of Paris Trout, pp. 3, 9; September 6, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 2; January 29, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 6.
Village Voice, June 17, 1986.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 95.
Vogue, October, 1991, Mark Marvel, review of Brotherly Love, p. 192.
Wall Street Journal, October 7, 1991, Julie Salamon, review of Brotherly Love, p. A12.
Washington Post, November 28, 1988.
Washington Post Book World, June 1, 1986; July 10, 1988, Judith Paterson, review of Paris Trout, p. 8; November 30, 1988; September 13, 1992, review of Brotherly Love, p. 12.
Western American Literature, winter, 1987, Margaret A. Lukens, p. 360.
World & I, March, 1995, review of The Paperboy, p. 322.
Mostly Fiction, http://www.mostlyfiction.com/ (December 17, 2002), review of The Paperboy.
Mystery Guide, http://www.mysteryguide.com/ (December 17, 2002).