BOOKS / Hellraiser who never met an adjective he liked: Anthony Quinn meets Pete Dexter, a wild and crazy guy whose novels display a white-knuckle prose style

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The Independent Culture
ASK PETE DEXTER a question and you wait. And wait. Nothing registers on his inscrutable poker face, and rather than drown in the silence you become a helpless prattler, pointlessly rephrasing the question (can you remember that long ago?) until he looks ready to reply. When the voice comes it's deep, laconic, utterly contained - and definitely worth listening to. Silence may, on occasion, be the only appropriate response, and Dexter should know. When one interviewer from a suave Manhattan magazine turned up on the doorstep, the first question he put to the novelist was 'Do you believe in sin?' From that decidedly unsuave opening things went downhill.

'It was so clumsy I couldn't figure out a way to get him out of it,' he recalls, shaking his head in wonderment. 'So then we went to the gym, I wrapped my hands and put on some gloves, and his nose is right in there the whole time. I was real uncomfortable, and started hitting the heavy bag. I told him two or three times to move away a little bit, but he kept moving back in to talk. Then I threw a hook and caught his tape-recorder by accident - it flew against the wall and smashed into about a hundred pieces. Complete accident. I helped him put it back together and I apologised six or seven times, even though it was stupid to stand that close. Anyways I was nice to him and he finally left.' In the event, the interview never appeared. After a long delay the magazine informed Dexter's publishers that they wouldn't be running the piece because the author had been, as he quotes, 'ungenerous with his answers'.

On acquaintance, Dexter proves in no way ungenerous - just unhurried. And with his short but impressive track record as novelist and screenwriter, what's the rush? He's paying his first visit here to coincide with the paperback publication of Brotherly Love (Flamingo, pounds 5.99), a heartstoppingly tense thriller which encompasses the Philadelphia mob wars, union racketeering, police corruption and 25 years of a family feud. It's a bleak study of loneliness and lawlessness, of guilt and guns and grievous bodily harm.

The latter is something Dexter has experienced at first hand: during his 10-year stint as a popular columnist on the Philadelphia Daily News, one night he got on the wrong end of a savage beating in a downtown bar. Apparently, a gang had objected to a column he'd written about drugs in the neighbourhood, and took out their displeasure with baseball bats. Dexter came close to death, though he's cautious - or maybe just indifferent - when asked about it today.

'That kind of thing didn't happen very often. Maybe five times in those years I was in Philadelphia a physical confrontation came up. It's not a thing that scares me - I went to the boxing gym six days a week, so if you call me up and say you're coming round to break my legs I'm not gonna run off and hide . . . but it's not something I'm gonna give away who I am over . . .' Fine, fine, I say.

Stories have accumulated around Pete Dexter. You suspect those eyes, dark and deep-set in his long, angular face, have seen a bit more than enough in 48 years. Something of a legend during his reporting days in Philadelphia, he was never one to shirk combat around the newsdesk. Gil Spencer, his friend and one-time editor of the Daily News, calls him a 'wild and crazy guy'.

Dexter allows himself a tight smile. 'Well, Spencer has his reasons for saying that. I mean there was always something goin' on, it wasn't just me, it was the paper's way of running things.' But it's fair to say he was a hellraiser? Long pause. 'Yeah, I think that's probably understating it a little. I had a run-in with a lot of editors.' The brawling, Hemingwayesque figure of yore has calmed down now, and quit drinking too. 'I didn't have any choice. Among the things that happened when I was hit over the head with softball bats was a change in the way alcohol tasted, kinda bitter, like battery acid.'

While still working as a newspaperman Dexter wrote two novels, God's Pocket and Deadwood, to moderate acclaim. His third novel, Paris Trout, made his name and won the National Book Award in 1988. A brooding Southern Gothic whose themes of racism and retribution are worked out through the terrifying psychopathy of a small-town storekeeper, the book announced the arrival of a remarkable talent. The style is pared-to-the-bone lucidity, a matter of sentences that aren't lean so much as starved - as Gil Spencer has noted, 'he never met an adjective he liked'. Trout was clearly a prize catch, and invoked grand comparisons with Faulkner. Yet Dexter's early influences are not so easily identified. He studied mathematics at the University of South Dakota, unlocking the mysteries of calculus 'until it occurred to me one day that I didn't know what the hell they were talking about'.

In any case, he admits that he didn't - still doesn't - read much of his supposed literary forebear: 'I've read enough Faulkner to understand our methods come from exactly the opposite way. I spend time honing the sentences. I want them to have integrity. I don't care how smart or how sincere you are, if the sentences don't work the book's sloppy.'

Dexter has recently turned to a more lucrative outlet for those sentences. In the last two years he has adapted Paris Trout for the screen and also scripted Lili Zanuck's drug movie Rush. As far as he's concerned, the whole business is a cakewalk: 'If you had to, you could write a screenplay in a weekend. It's only 110 pages, and most of that's white space: cut to interior, bar at night, four guys are standing around and here's what they say - bang, you've just written a page. You ever get a chance to do it you should try. And it pays too.'

The movie of Paris Trout failed to translate the white-knuckle tension of Dexter's novel, but it did feature a great American Psycho - did he admire Dennis Hopper's title performance? 'Yeah, I did. It was absolutely nothing like what I had in mind when I wrote the screenplay, but he was the one holding it all together - he's very professional about his work.' He and Hopper seem to have got along just fine - one might almost call them kindred spirits.

Up to now Dexter has kept his 'colourful' past under wraps, but he finally, briefly, relents: 'I remember once a huge guy came up and sat next to me in a bar - horrible-looking guy, face like a cleaver. He said, 'I wanna buy you a drink', and I said OK, and introduced myself. He said 'I know who you are. There's something I've always wanted to find out - why did you stab my refrigerator?' Turns out this guy owned a building I once rented an apartment in, and one night I just . . . stabbed his refrigerator. He was very friendly about it, but he said he always wondered why I did it.'

Laughs all round: so, um, why did he do it? Can he remember? 'Not really . . . but I've never had any trouble with refrigerators since. Word gets around.'

(Photograph omitted)