Pete Dexter is a hard guy. Dark. He writes hard–succinct, almost scary-clean prose–and he sure lived hard when he was a columnist in Philadelphia from the mid-Seventies through the mid-Eighties. Later, he became a novelist and wrote screenplays. His newspaper columns and a few longer magazine pieces were compiled in the fine collection, Paper Trails.
I’ve heard Dexter compared favorably with legendary newspaper columnists Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko.
Steve Volk wrote an excellent profile of Dexter a few years back that is worth checking out. In Philly, Dexter was friends with the fighter Randall Tex Cobb. Cobb and Dexter got into a brawl in a baroom that almost cost Dexter his life:
The night he was beaten near to death is Dexter’s signature biographical moment—the instant in time when his already colorful life story entered the realm of myth.
Dexter, so the story goes, was a hard-drinking Philadelphia newspaperman who met up with a bunch of Grays Ferry toughs. They were upset by a column he’d written about a drug-related death in the neighborhood. They beat him with baseball bats.
Dexter suffered a broken pelvis and enough broken skin to warrant 60 stitches. He recovered from his wounds, and—this is important—stopped drinking. Then he proceeded to become one of America’s best fiction writers.
There are, though, problems with the story.
For one, Dexter himself says the incident doesn’t look so important to him through his 63-year-old eyes—he didn’t hear a redemption song in the sound of his own pelvis cracking. Then there’s the matter of the baseball bats.
For a taste of Dexter’s work, take a look at this beautifully-crafted story he wrote for Sports Illustrated in the mid-Eighties:
Early on the afternoon of Feb. 4, 1982, a truck driver named Albert Brihn, on the way to a sewage-treatment plant off PGA Boulevard just outside Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., noticed something lying in a clearing of pine trees 60 feet off the road connecting the treatment plant to the street. It looked like a dummy.
Mr. Brihn delivered his load and headed back out. On the way, the thing in the clearing caught his eye again. Then something else—a buzzard, floating over it, banking again and again in those grim buzzard circles. Suddenly the thought broke, and Mr. Brihn knew what the thing was.
He stopped the truck and walked to the body. It was a man dressed in a black bikini bathing suit. There was a gold chain around the neck threaded through an Italian horn of plenty. He studied the body—there was a hole to the right of the nose, another at the right temple, both with muzzle burns, and there was a tear between the nose and the mouth where a bullet fragment had passed going out. As he stood there, the chest rose and fell twice. It was 1:30 in the afternoon.
A little more than 10 minutes later, the paramedics from Old Dixie Fire Station No. 2 arrived in an ambulance. If you believe the signs you see coming into town, Palm Beach Gardens is the golf capital of the world. It is home to a large retirement community—in this case a financially secure retirement community—so when one of its citizens expires, serious efforts are made toward not leaving the body lying around. Certainly not long enough to attract buzzards.
This particular body, of course, did not belong to someone of retirement age. The paramedics were there in 10 minutes anyway, and took it, the chest still rising and falling, to Palm Beach Gardens Community Hospital, where, at 3:36 p.m., the chest went suddenly still. Michael J. Dalfo was 29 years old, and the coroner’s report would say he died of two .25-caliber bullets, shot at close range into his head.