by Rob Jacklosky
Pete Dexter’s late emergence as a writer of fiction is not a story of gradual flowering; it is the product of abrupt violence.
Dexter’s novels return again and again to primal scenes of violence, and it’s a commonplace now among reviewers and critics to say that his late-emergence as a fiction writer (at 38) was a result of a famous beating he himself took in 1981—which he finally documented in his semi-autobiographical and most recent novel, Spooner. It’s as if he was compelled to write about his experience of violence, but contained it in a distancing generic frame—the film noir form in the screenplay for “Mulholland Drive,” the hardboiled crime fiction of God’s Pocket or Brotherly Love, the western in his novel Deadwood—until Spooner. And this direct engagement with the event that changed his life seems to have released him to write an uproarious picaresque free-for-all that is nothing like his other books.
Here’s the story that began it all: while a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Pete Dexter wrote about the murder of a young boy, perpetrating the sort of journalistic “violence” that Dexter would later depict in Spooner and in The Paperboy—wrenching events out of their context, reducing people into easily recognizable stereotypes. When veteran newspaperman Dexter characterized the boy’s death as a result of a drug deal gone wrong, the family was angry, and the brother of the victim made his unhappiness clear with calls to the paper. When Dexter went to the bar tended by the brother in the dangerous “Devil’s Pocket” (Schuylkill) neighborhood to apologize, the brother and his friends knocked his teeth out and chased him out of the bar.
Most reporters would have gotten the message. But Pete Dexter returned to the bar with top-ranked heavyweight fighter Randy “Tex” Cobb (who went on to star in “Raising Arizona” as the relentless motorcycle man determined to get Baby Arizona back). Cobb’s boxing career was more or less ended by the beating: he sustained a fractured arm. Dexter didn’t get off so easy. Like so many fights in Dexter’s books, bats and crowbars were involved. He suffered a broken back and pelvis, 90 stitches in his scalp, and brain damage. And to top it off, like the mild-mannered newspaperman Ward James in The Paperboy, who suffers a similar attack, Dexter woke up during surgery. Dexter has said in interviews that enduring surgery without anesthesia was far more horrifying than the attack.
Dexter has written seven novels and four screenplays since. And there are characters who, like Pete Dexter, don’t leave well enough alone: the taciturn, bordering-on-mean Miller Packard in Train, for instance, goes to Philadelphia bars in order to insult patrons with his erudite conversation. “Say the word avuncular, the next thing you knew fifteen of them had bats and were chasing you.” The otherwise sympathetic Peter Flood in Brotherly Love repeatedly enters a gym’s boxing ring to be beaten up by a much more skilled fighter—as penance for not preventing his baby sister’s death. And one of his characters in Brotherly Love says, “It is possible you have to be hurt to see anything at all.” Violence as a kind of inevitability in human relations is a theme that saturates all the work, and it’s also a focal point of many of the plots. But violence is also a mainspring for the novels’ construction. Dexter might give you a scene of showy violence that rivets your attention—a beating with a baseball bat that knocks someone’s eye out, broken glass scattered on the floor that severs a tendon, sodomy with a coke bottle—and these scenes often appear early, sending a kind of “what next?” shock through the book. There might even be disfiguring implications (a lost eye or a permanent limp), but the stoic characters don’t acknowledge the impairment: usually, the point is a more subtle change in the character that isn’t made clear until the last pages. Sometimes, the point seems to be how the re-tellings of stories of violence affect other characters, along with the reader.
Violence is not gratuitous but rather necessary in these books, because it leads to understanding. A gentle boxing trainer in Brotherly Love once needed hate, but has moved beyond it: “He wanted someone he can hate a little while, but that’s harder to find than it used to be. Somehow he ended up understanding too much; and what he can understand he can forgive.” The empathy and understanding of characters here and in The Paperboy seem to grow out of hard, bat-on-bone encounters with the world.
Dexter’s novels are not all violence and stoicism; they are also funny. My own introduction to Dexter was the delightful Spooner. If I were asked to characterize it (innocent of his other work), I’m not sure I’d even mention violence. Here, it is Pete Dexter’s humor, his irresistible voice, his gentle characters, and the sense that even the most broken-down no-hoper (like Spooner) can hold narrative interest for 500 pages that astounds. Nothing much goes right for Spooner or those close to him, up to and including his epic beating. I recommend this book to everyone and have given copies to friends, and all of them are struck first by how funny it is (I’m not sure I would recommend Train or Brotherly Love as often. In those books, there is a good deal of boxing, gun play, mangled arms, wrists and legs, some maiming, and a horrifying rape). Consider this offhand scenic detail about an abused chicken:
There were also shirtless men in the poultry yard, two of them hidden in the shadow of a henhouse: One of them was having sex with a chicken and the other one was standing with his pants down around his knees, an erection like a divining rod, waiting his turn. Why he didn’t just get a chicken of his own, only the man himself might know. Maybe it was too much like a double date.
Ultimately, though, it is the quiet devotion of Spooner’s stepfather, who sits by his battered son’s bedside after the bar attack, that compels. It is a particular brand of quiet goodness and devotion that delivers redemption for Spooner and the readers.
Dexter’s many years as a newspaperman and columnist seemed have instilled in him the ability to identify and elucidate cultural currents and complex social dynamics from particular, newsworthy incidents. Perhaps they instilled also the clarity and distance that mark his books. His voice, humor, economy, and empathy are present in all his columns (collected in Paper Trails), along with the preliminary sketches for some of the characters that populate his novels. But after that Philadelphia beating, he seemed convinced too of the writer’s moral responsibility to his subject. From Spooner: you can “never get away with pretending to care.” Pete Dexter is interested in laying bare how the pursuit of a deeper truth sometimes produces lies and cover ups. This is true of untrustworthy reporters like The Paperboy’s Yardley Acheman, who cuts corners, but it’s also true of earnest reporters like Ward James, dogged in the pursuit of truth. It is the hopelessness of telling a true story that Dexter’s getting at.
But that would be too simple, because these novels also believe stubbornly in the possibility of arriving at truth. The lawyers in Paris Trout try to interject doubt into the shooting of two black women by the unfeeling bogeyman Paris Trout, but the sole surviving victim, Mary McNutt, will not let them. The lawyers say the trial and jury will decide “what happened” that day, but McNutt, still carrying the bullets in her body, says, “They don’t decide what happened. It’s already done. All they decide is if they gone do something about it.” Sure, characters take moral shortcuts (convicting obviously guilty killers on cooked-up evidence or throwing them, handcuffed, off the side of a boat) to avoid the trouble of trials where lawyers try to confuse matters. Because the books are about justice, rather than the technicalities of the law. They’re about characters who see through pretenses to the way things really are.
It has to be said that there aren’t a lot of standout female characters in Dexter’s work; it’s a man’s world in these books. But there are two strong women in Train. One is a leading character, Norah Still, who is a wry and acerbic survivor, and more than a match for the hard-boiled hero Miller Packard. Another is a hard-boiled blonde named Whitey in Train—who warns us that she’s “a talker”— and who characterizes a rival in this way:
She moved in and been in his new place a week or two when she decided that she could smell death on him when he came home from work. She’s an artist and can’t work with the odor of death in her nostrils so Mr. Cooper went ahead and built her a studio—by then she already quit [her] job at the paper to devote her energies to art and poetry and leading Mr. Cooper around by the pecker.
Dexter’s laconic male characters rarely speak at such length, but the length is a character trait, and it’s economical in the long run. In this passage, there is a lot that’s typical Dexter: the economy, the beautifully rhythmic vernacular, the wise-ass tone, the sharp moral judgment made from the street. One character defines herself as she defines another, and the third character, Train, defines himself by the way he responds to her (with circumspection). Even Whitey’s willingness in 1953 to tell this story to an African American says something about her. Thank God some of Dexter’s characters are “talkers” (at whatever length), because they talk beautifully.
The narrative voice of many of the books (but especially Spooner and The Paperboy) strike a similar world-wise tone. Dexter writes in the first pages of The Paperboy: “In August of the year 1965, a man named Thurmond Call, who had, even by Moat County standards, killed an inappropriate number of Negroes in the line of duty was killed himself.” It’s as if the narrator shares the unscrupulous journalist Yardley Acheman’s assessment of human nature: “Yardley Acheman was right about Weldon Pine. He was often right about people, as he always expected the worst.”
Hang-dog and odd, Pete Dexter’s characters are generally not heroic and don’t proceed in a straight line. Some are genuine fuck-ups (there’s no polite way to say it, and Dexter wouldn’t say it if there were), and most meander. Characters continually surprise us and are often surprised by their own actions. Spooner begins at the birth of its forlorn hero: he arrives “second out the door that morning, a few moments behind his better-looking fraternal twin, Clifford, who, in the way these things often worked out for Spooner’s mother, arrived dead yet precious as life itself.” The novel promises to focus on a little boy who breaks into neighbors’ homes in order to pee in their shoes. We don’t know why he’s doing it, and neither does he. You might believe you are going to get the story of that odd 4-year-old boy; but then the narration becomes interested in the boy’s stepfather, a by-the-book former naval officer whose career is sunk by a slapstick mishap involving a coffin that refuses to be buried at sea. The stepfather, Calmer Ottoson, becomes a hero to the young Spooner over the course of the novel. He is a model of rectitude, but his rectitude gets him into trouble. The naval mishap leads to court-martial, and even worse, marriage to Spooner’s mom. We then jump to Spooner’s adolescence, where he is now a promising baseball player. A catastrophic arm injury ends his career as a pitching phenom before it really begins. Then, we are onto Spooner’s adulthood—which is itself a series of divorces, firings, and other screw-ups mostly of Spooner’s own making. Calmer recedes into the background only to return when the adult Spooner, victim of the vicious bar attack, needs him.
While we are conditioned to expect cruel stepfathers in fiction, Spooner gives us a story of a boy (and then a man) in need of a good father, and miraculously, that father appears. On the one hand, it closely follows Pete Dexter’s own relationship with his stepfather, who taught physics at a military college and rescued the wayward Dexter. However, the book ultimately presents their relationship as it might have been: in the book, Spooner, after becoming a successful writer, eventually cares for the heroically self-sufficient stepfather when he falls ill; but in life, Dexter’s stepfather died too soon for that, and in fact, never saw his stepson’s success as a novelist. Spooner provides a fictional redemption for Spooner and Dexter; though indirectly, the violence of the bar beating leads to grace.
In Dexter’s fictional world, small actions spider out like a crack in a windshield. Paris Trout begins with a tight focus on a 14-year-old African-American girl, Rosie Sayers, and her criminally indifferent mother, in 1940s Georgia. We’re told Rosie Sayers was afraid of going out, and “would not leave the house unless she was forced.” She is forced to leave the house to buy a box of .22 caliber shells for one of her mother’s visitors—a “sportsman.” She buys the bullets from Paris Trout, who radiates menace. On her way home, she is bitten by a fox and loses the shells. Rosie gets rabies from the fox bite, and as we contemplate whether the indifference of a white doctor will kill her, her mother decides Rosie has been poisoned, and “gives” her to the sportsman. Mary McNutt rescues Rosie just as she is about to be molested by the sportsman. The reader is relieved that Rosie escaped unscathed from two encounters with Trout and seems to have been saved from a predator; but then McNutt brings her into her house. In that house is her son, who has bought a car from Paris Trout and wrecked it. He owes Paris money. And when Paris comes looking for the money, he kills Rosie instead.
Despite all the twists, turns, and grim mischances in the novel, there is a kind of rough justice: the rest of the novel concerns the trial of Paris Trout, and the trial pulls in and wrecks some people, while saving others, notably Trout’s abused wife. In the end—as Paris Trout keeps insisting—debts must be paid.
So, bad things happen to Dexter’s characters, sometimes unbelievably bad things. But Dexter tells his stories with a wry reserve—or as Dexter puts it, “droll southern wittage”—reassuring that things tend toward the good even if misery is involved along the way. When you look at his total output, Dexter is always working on the “long game,” to use the golf metaphor that operates in Train. And many of his characters share an ability to float outside of themselves and witness their lives from afar, as if they too understand the value of the long view. Peter has this external viewpoint in Brotherly Love: “Peter watches it happen from a long way off, watches himself stand up, knocking over a chair, and put the mouth of the gun in the middle of Leonard’s throat.” Packard has it in Train: “From his earliest memory, he had a facility to see himself from a distance, sometimes, when he thought about it, it seemed like he’d been someplace else watching himself for most of his life.” “Living in the third person,” is what Spooner calls it. Perhaps this life-at-distance “long view” that Pete Dexter employs so skillfully is a result of coming to fiction himself after some surprising wrong turns.
Rob Jacklosky is chair and Professor of English at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Bronx. His scholarly publications include essays on Matthew Arnold and Frank Sinatra. Last year, he was a top-ten finalist in the Esquire Short Short Fiction Contest (judged by Colum McCann). A series of his comic essays appeared in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His short stories have appeared in Sonora Review, Sendero, Konundrum Literary Engine Review and Construction. His Ph.D. is from Rutgers and his M.A. and B.A. are from New York University.
Rob Jacklosky’s previous features: George Eliot: Strong-Minded Woman and Varying Unfolding Self