Of his writing regimen, Dexter says: “It’s work. You’re pulling stuff out, like I did with Spooner, that doesn’t want to come out. The only time I really enjoyed the process was writing Spooner. I didn’t want it to end.”
For Dexter, the most essential quality a novelist must possess is the ability to entertain his or her readers. “There’s nothing more important than that.”
It’s a good mystery that most entertains Dexter. In Philly, Dexter became a regular at the Whodunit bookstore, where he first met Tex Cobb. He likes Mike Connelly’s stuff (“He knows what’s he’s doing”), and Scott Turow (“He always aims high. You can see him really trying”), and just about anything by Elmore Leonard.
Among more traditional novelists, Dexter admires Padgett Powell, Thomas McGuane, Tom Wolfe, and Jim Harrison. But it is friend and author Richard Russo (Nobody’s Fool, Mohawk, The Risk Pool, Straight Man, Empire Falls) who is Dexter’s absolute favorite.
“I got a call from The New York Times some time back, asking me what the best novel of the last, I forget, 25 or 50 years was,” Dexter recalls. “And I told him it was Straight Man,” Russo’s poignant 1997 novel about a wisecracking professor trying to navigate his way through a highly dysfunctional English department at a central Pennsylvania university.
Dexter’s respect for Russo is mutual. In an e-mail, Russo writes: “Pete Dexter has always been a writer after my own heart: sly, yet deeply honest, full of twisted wit and spirit. He wears both his prodigious talent and knowledge of the human heart ever so lightly, as if they’re hardly worth mentioning, a mere parlor trick, and not the stuff of which great art is made.”
Dexter has this wonderful ability to get to the heart of something without hitting directly on the head. He creeps up on the outside, or up from beneath, in a way that is surprising. He’s a huge talent but he doesn’t let his talent that get the better of him. His prose is restrained without being forced. And he doesn’t coast. Writing is not easy for him, every sentence, every word, is worked over until it’s right. Steve Lopez, the accomplished columnist, said that Dexter is “the guy who makes you want to give it up, sell shoes, take up heavy drinking, or just shoot yourself.” And that’s true. But he also makes me want to try harder.
“He’s some kind of genius,” Richard Ben Cramer told me recently. “He’s just ferocious.”