Over the years, Pete Dexter's hard-edged novels have been widely praised for both the riveting stories they tell and the sparkling clarity of the sentences with which they are told. His 1988 best-selling novel, Paris Trout, won the National Book Award. In 1996, The New York Times hailed his novel Paperboy as "eerie and beautiful." Pete Dexter is not just a reader's writer, but a writer's writer.
So it's a great surprise to hear Dexter say, "I actually didn't read a real book until I was maybe 20. The rest of the family were readers and writers. I was the one that wanted to shoot out the windows and have a good time."
Dexter now lives with his family on an island in Puget Sound, up on a cliff so high that "you wouldn't want to get drunk and fall off into the water." During a call to his home to discuss his masterful new novel, Train, he doesn't really say what transformed him from a wild child into a respected newspaper reporter in Florida and, later, in Philadelphia. But he's quite specific about how he became a novelist.
"The day I thought I could do this was when I finally read Robert Frost and saw what he was about. I mean I just got it. It was like teaching a dog to sit up; suddenly one day he just got it. There's nobody that's got better craft. There's a wildness inside the poems. They're very physical. They're full of objects and nouns and there's always something going on in them. Strangely enough, I have the feeling I'm in his head when I'm reading his stuff. I've never read another poet that I enjoyed like that."
Of course, nearly the same words can be used to describe Dexter's own fiction. His best books (count Train among them) possess a sort of terrifying beauty, a wildness inside. Yet they unfold precisely, in sentences and scenes that have an excruciating, almost-physical weight and measure.
Over the phone, the author's voice sounds like sandpaper and leather. It's mid-afternoon, and Dexter, who normally starts writing after midnight and sleeps late into the morning, is still near the beginning of his day. If he's working on a screenplay, he says, he'll usually finish by 2 or 2:30 a.m. "If it's a book and I'm at the stage where I'm trying to hold it all together, I'll sometimes go until 5 or 6. It's a nice time of night. The phone doesn't ring. Things are very quiet. And, then, I've always liked to sleep in the morning. God, I love getting up at one o'clock in the afternoon!"
As intensely devoted as he is to his craft, Dexter is almost shy about discussing the meaning of his novels. "I'm terrible at explaining this stuff," he says. "I figure that if the characters are right and the things that happen to them feel true, then the meanings will be there. I can't imagine myself starting from the other end, saying I'll write a book about what it means to be black and talented at a time when people wouldn't allow you to be talented. That's not the way I think."
Pressed, however, Dexter proves to be quite eloquent about his new book. Set in Los Angeles in the 1950s, Train tells the intersecting stories of three main characters. Lionel Walk, nicknamed Train , is a young black caddy at a Los Angeles golf course who has a real but unrealizable talent for golf. Norah Rose is the surviving victim of a murderous boat hijacking. Miller Packard is the police detective who seems to bring both order and chaos to the others' lives.
Of the seemingly unknowable Packard, Dexter observes, "Packard is the biggest mystery in the book. That's because we see the least through his eyes." Lurking in Packard's background is his traumatic experience on the World War II battleship Indianapolis, which was sunk by the Japanese, leaving its sailors at the mercy of the sea and the sharks. "When we pick him up," Dexter says of the character, "he's already spent four days in the Pacific Ocean, probably being as scared as you ever could be and experiencing things as bad as they can be without actually being killed. Something in that rush appealed to him and he goes through life putting himself in places where things happen. And because of that he becomes empty in some way probably because he doesn't understand or believe that love exists. When love hits him later on, it changes him."
As Dexter suggests, in its own strange way Train is at least partly a love story. A visceral, elemental, haunted and haunting one, to be sure, but a love story nonetheless. Dexter tells it with the same unsparing, almost aggressive lack of sentimentality that is evident in his previous novels. This characteristic has earned him a pigeonhole on the noir side. "I can't write a check without someone saying, well, that's pretty dark," he jokes.
In fact, Train is often very funny. But it's not, as Dexter points out, "comedian funny." His humor is "the natural byproduct of cultural and personal stress. One of the things that always comes out of conflict in real life is humor."
Like many writers, Dexter is unsure about the book's reception. "I write the book and you read it and what happens in that book occurs when you and I meet on the page," he says. "A lot of it is just a mystery to me, too. I don't necessarily know how the process happens."
Still, for the first time in a number of years, he's looking forward to the book tour for Train . He's with a new publisher (Doubleday), and he's "enjoying the energy. These people are having fun, it seems like, and I'll always respond to that. I live my life in fear that somebody else is having fun and I'm not."
He adds, "I'm not getting on airplanes anymore. I've got all kinds of metal in my body from various injuries. I'm always setting off the detectors and, with airports the way they are now, I get searched six times getting on the plane. So I'm going to drive. Down the coast, over to Chicago, New York, Philly, down to Miami and back through Denver. Take my time. Stop and hear some stories."
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.