From Pete Dexter's first novel, God's Pocket (1983):
"The truest thing in the world was that you showed who you were writing a column. He said that at his lectures, and they always took that to mean politics or how you feel about the death penalty. Which had nothing to do with it. There were as many dick shrivelers that wanted to ban nuclear sites and love their brother as there were that wanted to bomb Russia. It was almost incidental, what you had for issues. But how you saw things, how physical things went into your eyes and what your brain took and what it threw back, that told who you were."
Pete Dexter was a legendary newspaper columnist in Philadelphia and then in Sacramento from the late 1970s through the mid-'80s, but unless you lived in those towns at the time or unless you hung out in the microfilm room of your local library, it was nearly impossible to track down his work. Dexter has written seven novels—the third one, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award—and they are all in print. But until Dexter's old friend, Rob Fleder, a longtime magazine (Esquire, Playboy, Sports Illustrated) and book editor, had the notion to compile Dexter's journalism, some of his greatest work remained unavailable to us.
First published in 2007, Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage gives us what we want—a sampling of Dexter's work as a columnist. The good people at Ecco Press have now published a paperback edition, thus giving me an excuse to call up Pete and get him talking about his days in the newspaper business.
I got to know Pete when his last book, Spooner, was published, and I interviewed him then as part of a long-running Bronx Banter Interview series. (Last year, I interviewed Fleder for a collection he put together for Ecco, Damn Yankees. And here is an excerpt from an essay Pete wrote in that book about Chuck Knoblauch.)
What follows was put together from several recent phone conversations with Pete.
Bronx Banter: What kind of reporter were you when you began?
Pete Dexter: I didn't have a specialty or anything. I was kind of looked on as a guy who could write. I was a careful writer and a careless reporter. Reporting is a talent but it's also just a matter of rolling up your sleeves. A guy like Bob Woodward didn't get where he is by being charming or having a way with people I don't think. He just did it by following all the rules and taking things as far as they could be humanly taken. That wasn't what I wanted to do. I knew that early on. I didn't get any satisfaction out of breaking a story. It just didn't appeal to me.
BB: You started in the Watergate Era when Woodward and Bernstein made the whole idea of being a reporter something else, a star.
PD: Yeah, all of a sudden kids were going to journalism school so they could take down a president. It was a passing fad, I guess, but it lasted ten years anyway. You used to call them "serious young journalists." You sign up for that, and…if you don't have your heart in it, if that's not compulsive in you, if you don't feel like you have to do it, you're probably not going to be much of a reporter. Early on I recognized that I was going to have to come from some other direction. On the other hand, I loved being part of the newspaper, I loved that feeling when big stories were breaking, though it wasn't me that broke them.
BB: And you didn't have a need to be that guy.
PD: No, I never wanted to be Hoag Levins, who worked for the Philadelphia Daily News. Hoag would put on black face and army fatigues and crawl up to Mayor Rizzo's house and come away with how much the doorknobs cost and then try to figure how a guy who'd made a living as a police chief and mayor could afford an expensive house. He was wildly ambitious and he was a really good guy. But eventually he made a couple of mistakes and then something got him tripped up—I can't even remember what it was now—some story he got wrong. They had to fire him. And that would not have been done easily cause you couldn't help but like him and admire his energy.
BB: Was there a part of reporting, even before you had the column, the part where you'd just go out and talk to people, that you liked? Were you interested in people?
PD: Yeah, not so much for the newspaper. I used to drive around a lot in this old Jeep and I'd see somebody doing something interesting and I'd always pull off the road and go talk to them. That's been something I've always done. And sometimes you hear some real strange stuff. Other times people just won't talk to you, and that's OK.
BB: So your natural curiosity helped you.
PD: It wasn't a conscious thing. I've always loved stories. If you're patient enough there are more people than you'd ever guess that have stories. It wasn't deliberate but that's what my stuff's always been about: It's about stories.
BB: Had you thought about wanting to have a column even before Gil Spencer arrived at the paper?
PD: That had been in my head. It was the only job outside of running the paper that I wanted. And they were not going to let me run the paper, that was pretty obvious.
BB: Did you get along with your editors?
PD: All the problems I've had with management, and they have been legion, were with people that feel the necessity to control you or put their two cents in. This started when I was a reporter. There's that city editor, assistant city editor, sometimes the managing editor, that certain class of people, as part of their job they feel an obligation to change things just so that they have their own imprint on it somehow. And that's where the rub comes because if you say, "That's silly, that doesn't make sense and here's why…" you are no longer questioning their editing but you've confronted their power, their position. And once that starts, once you let them know you're not just on their side, that's where the problems always come from. At least with me. I never enjoyed the confrontations, certainly not as much as I've been given credit for, but that's what it always was about. Power. My thought was you can be the nighttime assistant city editor for the rest of your life and I don't care, you don't have anything I want, just leave me alone.
BB: They weren't about making the piece better necessarily.
PD: I never worked for anybody I looked up to as a writer but I worked for a lot of people that I looked up to as a newspaper guy, and if those people said something, I listened. But the ones who knew what they were doing knew enough to leave me alone in what I did, and if I stepped over a line in their world then not only was I glad for the criticism—if they'd caught some mistake that kept me from being embarrassed again—I was always grateful for that. I didn't have a sense that if I wrote it it has to be right.
BB: Before you started a column, what columnists did you read, either in Philadelphia or around the country? Not so much that you wanted to emulate them necessarily but who got you interested in the form.
PD: This is hard to explain but when I came to Philly I was in my early thirties. I came out of Florida and had been in the newspaper business on-and-off for about two years and I didn't know what a newspaper column was. I hadn't read Breslin or Pete Hamill or Mike Royko. I didn't know what they did. There were two columnists at the News when I got here, Tom Fox who wrote a column on Page Two, and Larry McMullen, who recently died. McMullen would go out in the street, hear these stories, and write them. He was from South Philadelphia and he was of that time and of that place and of that paper and I've never seen a better fit for a paper. When I saw that he was writing stories, that's when I wanted to do it. He was writing five times a week and when I started I was doing that too—went to four and then to three.
BB: Did you get to know McMullen well?
PD: Oh, yeah, McMullen and I were old friends. I never felt any rivalry. The other guy, Tom Fox, was one of these little guys who walks around … someone called him the best columnist in the country—someone is always saying something like that about you—and he believed it. He'd write about some shooting and he was throwing in tough guy talk like, "He blew the faggot away." I remember someone wrote a letter to the editor and said, "Who's really the faggot?" And some criticism of Fox came in that letter. He was just outraged. That was pretty funny to see, at least to me. Those are two perfect examples for someone who wanted to be a columnist—I saw exactly the kind of columnist I wanted to be and the kind I didn't want to be. It's good to have one of each.
BB: Did Spencer give you the columnist job or did you have a test run, first?
PD: There was a little time there that I wrote one or two a week when I was still a reporter. That was a short period of time, I can't tell you how long, a couple of months. But once he gave me a taste of it I was even harder to deal with on the city desk. There was this guy Zach Stalberg who later ran the paper and who is really a good guy, the kind of guy you'd want running your newspaper if you couldn't have Spencer. Gil made Stalberg the city editor and a couple of months later he became the managing editor. But his present to Stalberg was giving me the column so I was no longer his responsibility. When I started the column if anyone had any problems with me they went straight to Spencer and that was good for everybody. Yeah, I think everybody was happy the way that worked out.
BB: Was it a big transition for you?
PD: It was an avalanche of sudden work. You go from the city desk where someone tells you, "Go interview the widow of this guy who just got shot," and so you go to the movies and come back and say, "She wasn't there," to having to do a story every day. It was more than a small change. If you are a reporter and you're not a good reporter there are places to hide. You can do all kinds of stuff to avoid producing. But if that column space is yours and you've got to fill it by definition you've got to fill it. That was good for everybody, too. First of all, it made me a better reporter.
BB: How so?
PD: You come to realize when you're writing a column that the best columns—the very best ones come off your head—but if you are going to do it three times a week, some of those days you go talk to real people and by the time you get back the column writes itself. I'm thinking about that column in the book [Paper Trails] about the guy in Camden who found the head in the bag. You drive 10 minutes over to Camden, talk to this guy for half an hour, and yeah, I got lucky that day, but that was exactly what a newspaper column is supposed to be. And it was just handed to you. By that time I could write well enough the words were just there, the story was there. And that sort of thing, when it worked, was what a column was about. Most of my better columns were about that, going to actually talk to somebody.
BB: The great sport columnist Red Smith didn't think of himself as a columnist but as a reporter.
PD: Yeah, that's right.
BB: You said earlier that you'd drive around, stop the car, and talk to a guy. When you were doing the column, did you force yourself even more to do that because you thought, hey, I've got to have something to write about today?
PD: When you're writing a column, your first question when you look at things are: Is this a column? But if I saw something interesting I'd still want to go ask about it. I'm still like that. I can't tell you how many kids I've talked to who are on skateboards. Just ask them how they do what they're doing and stuff like that. In a way, I kind of believe that thing of, there are no stupid questions, although God knows I get asked a lot of them. But to me, if you don't know something and you've wondered about it, why not find out?
BB: Did you ever come across something that you found interesting but felt was too big to be a column?
PD: Yeah, but you could usually turn it into a three-part column or write about the same thing for three days. Sometimes that couldn't be done and yeah it'd be a size you couldn't handle.
BB: Did you talk to Spencer or anyone else about what you were going to write about beforehand?
PD: No. Good Christ. No.
BB: Did you ever junk one? Or just go with something you didn't think was that good?
PD: You can write a letters column, you can find something else to do when it's not going your way but that didn't happen very often. What you really need is your voice being there three times a week.
BB: How long did it take to develop your voice or style?
PD: The voice was there from the get-go. That goes back to basic writing. If you're thinking about developing your voice you're thinking about the wrong things. That should just be—-
BB: Like your speaking voice—
PD: You don't want to be conscious of it. It just happens, at least that's the way I think. Jeez, I'm looking at my dog outside and he's taking like the third crap of the last two hours. ... Probably shouldn't have given him that pork chop. We have a rule against giving them pork. Shit.
BB: Kosher, huh?
BB: What about subject matter? Did you ever think, Oh, I've written three heavy pieces so far this week; I want to change it up with something light?
PD: No. Whatever came. Once, early on in my column writing, I wrote a piece, I can't remember what it was about exactly, a guy'd lost his cat and I talked to him for a little while. A guy from one of the neighborhoods. When you write a column you get your detractors. And I got a letter from someone who said that I ripped off a Hemingway short story, where that was a line, something "and the fact that cats that can take care of themselves was all he had." And I had. Christ knows it wasn't conscious. I went back and looked at the story. It absolutely looked intentional and it wasn't. It wasn't enough on the nose where anyone could say it was plagiarism or anything but the idea of it, I sure could see why the guy said what he said. That's the only time something like that ever happened to me. And I don't to this day know … I know that it wasn't intentional. I really can't say much more about it but it was there and the idea was behind a short story that Hemingway had written and one that I'd read in college.
BB: Did you write back to the guy?
PD: Probably talked to him. I called people, I didn't write letters much. There wasn't much to say, really. But he did have a point. So when years later I heard that Doris Kearns Goodwin was accused of plagiarism … I guess all I'm saying is that I've got some sympathy. When you're writing enough, when you're writing everyday something like that can creep into your stuff without knowing you're really doing it. I know it was only once and nobody ever mentioned anything else. But it bothered me.
BB: Did you read the letters that were sent to you by readers?
PD: Read them? Sure.
BB: Did you enjoy them?
PD: Eh, when they were funny. Twenty a day was a big day, six letters a day was predictable. Some were funny. Sometimes they had stories and that could be valuable. But most of the time they were either agreeing with you and disagreeing with you and who cares?
BB: You ever wake up and say, "I got nothing?"
PD: No. There's always something. I took it fairly seriously but I was always doing enough stuff. If something funny wasn't going on or something interesting wasn't going on I could usually do something bad enough that I could write about it the next day.
BB: In your own life?
PD: Yeah. I ended up with an FBI guy at a bar one night and I bet him that I could throw a case of beer across Pine Street. The cops showed up. So you had the cops and the FBI guy and me and everyone from Dirty Frank's out there in the street and it looked like a riot … and that makes a nice little column.
BB: You said earlier that other than running the paper writing a column was the only job you wanted. After two or three years of doing the column, did you feel like you'd found your calling, were you happy with it?
PD: Yeah, I was happy but I didn't feel like that was it. I would have been probably a lot better off, if you call what I did a career—whatever this is—if I'd devoted myself entirely to that space in the Philly Daily News or gone to New York or stayed with newspapers. I would have definitely been a better newspaper columnist. And who knows, you have to do what makes you happy at the time. I don't regret any of that. I don't regret not being in newspapers but there are sure days when I miss it.
BB: The immediacy of it?
PD: I don't know. I just liked being in the city room, I liked the people I worked with—some of them anyway. It was just nice. You're—
BB: Part of something.
PD: And an important part of it and that makes a difference.
BB: Writing a column sounds a whole less solitary than writing novels.
PD: Oh, yeah. There's no comparison.
BB: Did you write the column at home or go in to the paper?
PD: No, I went into the paper every day. If I didn't have a column the next day, I went in anyway just to see what was going on.
BB: So it was a social thing, then.
PD: Oh, yeah. I couldn't help it.
BB: Was it like a locker room?
PD: Yeah. I was always kind of working. I mean, I didn't write a column every day but I always went in to see what's going on and that's work in a way. Yeah, I just liked being around those people, I liked to see what people were doing. Some of them I still think about to this day and wish I had contact with. There were a bunch of real good reporters.
BB: Do you keep in touch with any of them?
PD: There was a guy named Bob Fowler at the Inky [the Philadelphia Inquirer] that I still talk to once in a while and when I go back there I look up a guy named Gehringer, Dan Gehringer, he's a real good writer, who I knew from back in Florida. But for the most part, no. No, I really don't, that's the truth.
BB: Did you hang out and have drinks with copy editors and reporters?
PD: Eh, not too much. Once in a while, a drink with somebody. For most of that time I wasn't in the bars at all once that thing happened in South Philadelphia, that's when I started writing novels and I didn't have the time or inclination for the bars anymore.
BB: When you were doing the column did you then start to read other guys like Breslin or Hamill?
PD: I'd see Breslin's stuff and Hamill's stuff once in awhile. A guy like Breslin, he was a columnist. And that was in spite of the The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. That's what he was. And he never was much good at anything else that I know of.
BB: You've said before that you never had ambition to write novels, but after the first three, you were still writing the column. Did writing fiction inform the nature of how you wrote the column?
PD: No, I don't think so. I'd just sort of get up and do what was in front of me that day.
BB: Did you ever go to the office to work on a novel?
PD: No, I couldn't do that there. That's a separate deal. I was never conscious of anything going on intentionally. It's a funny thing to say. Every place I ever went I stumbled into accidentally. Maybe one thing led to another but not intentionally.
BB: So you didn't have a grand plan?
PD: At some point I decided I was done with newspapers but …
BB: Yeah, before that: What was it like leaving Philly and going to the Sacramento Bee?
PD: Oh, fuck, it was the worst thing I ever did professionally. I went there because the guy that ran the paper was an old friend of mine. I'd rather not get into that, but the whole place smacked of an office environment, a business environment. I wasn't there that long, but when I left they asked me to continue to write up in Washington State where I lived but you can't be a local columnist and not be local. And the truth is when you're writing well, the only columnists are local columnists. National columnists are something different. There aren't as many stories. It's more reports and views. Where the best columns are just there, they're just stories. For me, anyway.
BB: In order to be a good columnist to you need to have a basic sense of outrage about things?
PD: I think different guys do it different ways. It'd just wear me out to go in the office every day outraged. And you shouldn't do that now that I think about it because that ruins the taste for when something real comes along. You can't go at it like one of these television guys who every night has some breaking news about how bad Obama's fucked up or something. When you're always outraged, it's like the boy that cried wolf and it's too much. It can be entertaining for someone who is reading the paper for the first time but if all you get from that space is outrage pretty soon nobody believes it, I don't think. And if it does it appeals to people who are outraged by nature and want to be outraged more.
BB: So everything changed for you as a columnist once you Philly.
PD: It was never the same. I mean, Philadelphia is probably the best place of them all to write a newspaper column. The place is so rich. I missed that. And the paper was so open to what I had to offer, way more than any other paper in the country would have been. And Spencer was such a good guy about it. I don't think there was a better place to work than the Philadelphia Daily News. And I left it … for reasons that don't make any sense to me now. I left it 'cause it was time to do something else, I guess. But if I was going to stay in newspapers I'd made a terrible mistake.
BB: You were a columnist for about a decade. Are there guys that get better after 15 years or do they create a persona and then there's a cap for how far you can go?
PD: Oh, no, you can get better. If you have initiative, if your interest is in the paper and the stories themselves, if you're a newspaperman in your heart, you continue to get better and love it. I think at the center of things, as much fun as it was for me, I wanted to do something else.
BB: Why does it sound like you have regret about it?
PD: I'm just sorry because it was so much fun. There's good things and bad things about anywhere but there was an awful lot of good things about that place, Philadelphia. And in that way I'm sorry we left.
BB: When you go back, is it a different place?
PD: No. The paper's not the same, I'll tell you.
BB: It's funny, you could have stayed at the paper and then you'd be going through all these cutbacks and changes.
PD: Oh, I'd be way more unhappy. I mean I get sad about it, I get melancholy about it, but don't get me wrong, I wouldn't go back and change it.
PD: Not really. That's an awful lot of writing for—it was an awful lot of work and in the end all you have is a magazine story. As much as I like stopping along the road and talking to somebody I don't like invading their lives, which is what you need to do. You have to spend a couple of weeks around Jim Brown to begin to get anything. I've been on the other side of it, having a guy hanging around me taking notes, and I don't like it. And I don't like doing it to someone else for that reason.
BB: How is newspaper reporting different?
PD: You can't hang around them at all, really. I mean, Christ, I don't know how many columns I wrote about Randall Cobb and his quest to be the champion of the world but Cobb and I would have been friends anyway. That was a sure-fire column at least once a month, sometimes more than that.
BB: There's a funny Cobb story about a rental car in Paper Trails. The four columns you wrote on Cobb during the week he fought Larry Holmes in Houston for the heavyweight championship aren't in the book but I really like them. They were so emotional.
PD: Yeah, it was a sad time.
BB: Because of the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah, it's hard to watch somebody realize the dream of his life is never going to happen and he's doing everything he can and it's … you know, you really have to set your mind to do something like that. In the first place, you have to lie to yourself all the time. And then to see it all spilled out in front of you like it was, that it wasn't going to happen … it was sad. He really tried hard.
BB: Did you feel guilty at all?
PD: No. Why?
BB: Because he'd broken his arm in the bar fight you'd been in together the previous winter in South Philly.
PD: No, that went beyond … that wasn't guilty. I felt bad about it but he and I'd been through so much other stuff, and it just, um, what was going on between me and Randall was a lot closer to—I don't want to say brotherhood, exactly—but we'd been … no, I didn't feel guilty about it. But I wasn't one of the guys … I mean, there was 5,000 people in Philadelphia thinking they're Randall Cobb's best friend. Because he was nice to everybody and he would tell people stuff and they would go around thinking that he'd told them something real. But he and I were friends in a different way than that. I understood and he understood exactly what happened that night.
BB: What exactly was that?
PD: No, it's too complicated. I can't go into that anymore than I already have 2,000 times because there's something at the bottom of it between Cobb and me, something that if I tried to go back and explain it, it all just washes over me again. He's just so … like I said, those were such sad times in the way that I mentioned. What you're asking about is going into a place that I don't talk about with anybody. It's private in some way between me and Cobb in a way that probably doesn't lend itself very well to words.
BB: Shit, I'm sorry if I made you uneasy even asking about it.
PD: No, it's alright. I'd gotten hit that night in the bar and I was unconscious. It's just … that moment when I wake up and Cobb was the only guy there and I wanted to get him—something happened there between us that I've not, something I can't revisit easily, let's put it that way. But don't feel bad about asking me, that's what you're supposed to do.
BB: Did you guys stay close after the Holmes fight?
PD: Yeah. I mean, he'd started moving away before he fought Holmes. About a month before he fought Holmes he disappeared for a while. I don't know where he was training but I couldn't get through to him. He got rid of his manager and his trainer and showed up with a different guy at the fight. And those people were … I mean, everybody was after Cobb as a meal ticket. Money was what they all wanted. He'd been carrying a hundred people around on his back forever, y'know, being everybody's best friend. If he had $10 and somebody asked him for it, he gave it to them. Whatever he had they could have and he was always like that. And it finally, I think it got to be too much. Christ, he didn't care what he signed, contracts and shit like that, he never paid any attention to that. He and I kind of lost touch for a while but you don't give up what you feel about somebody like that.
BB: So when you and Rob Fleder went through the material for Paper Trails did you read tons of columns that you'd forgotten about?
PD: Oh sure. And I'm sure there were tons more than Fleder passed on I still haven't seen or remember. You got to remember it's more than a thousand columns, at least. It's kind of like finding an old diary or something.
BB: Did you enjoy reading through them?
PD: Uh, sort of. Fleder did the work. Fleder's the guy that read them all. He's the reason the book is there. He's absolutely as much a reason that book exists as I am. It's a funny thing that makes you smile when you look at it. It was such a nice thing for him to do. It wasn't like we were going to get rich or anything. God, it's just the nicest thing you can do for somebody in a way. When I look back on the book, I think about Fleder and what a great thing that was to do for me.
BB: In Yiddish they call that a Mitzvah. A blessing.
BB: A nice thing to do.
PD: And that's what this is, I guess. A mitz-vah.
You can buy Paper Trails here or download it for to your phone or tablet here. Source photo by Marion Ettlinger, from the back cover of Dexter's fourth novel, Brotherly Love. Background photo via Getty.