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Pete Dexter’s L.A. Noir

Pete Dexter's first novel in eight years, set in Los Angeles circa 1953, tells the story of a preternaturally talented black golfer named Lionel Walk and his enigmatic benefactor, Miller Packard. "Really, it's hard to say what Train is about," the author admits. "It's kind of about marriage. It's a little bit about talent. It's a little about potential. A lot of it's about friendship." Pete Dexter

Racial tension, violence, lust, power... Dexter's trademark themes are everywhere present in his writing, yet each of his novels is unique. Since turning to fiction at the age of forty he spent more than fifteen years as a journalist before publishing God's Pocket in 1983 he's tackled small town Georgia politics (Paris Trout), the American frontier (Deadwood), investigative reporting (The Paperboy), and the mob (Brotherly Love). Now, in Train, he offers readers a truly original take on the Los Angeles noir.

"The book's conclusion is terrifying and inevitable," Esquire's Adrienne Miller promises. "Train is utterly pitiless in its dramatization of the contradictory nature of compassion. Norah Still, for instance, considers herself the least racist white person around...until she's raped by black men. And Dexter's characters vividly-rendered and idiosyncratically-voiced are so heartbreaking they penetrate like bullets."

Dave: The new novel is called Train, but events revolving around another character, Packard, frame the story. One could argue that Packard is as important, or even more important in that respect than Train. So why name the book after the caddie?

Pete Dexter: The germ of this book was Western Avenue Golf Course in L.A. I've been down there a few times and it is kind of a rough place. It was probably the first place in L.A. where black people were allowed to play. Not the only one there was the one out at the park, too but when I first heard about it and heard about the money games and how gangsters went there and sometimes found somebody to take around the country?

This isn't a legend, exactly I'm even reluctant to call it part of a story I heard but I heard something about a kid that showed up that could really play, could play with the big guys. He was there for a year and disappeared.

The word Train came into it after I named the guy Lionel, but it was never his book alone. I think of it as being a four-character book: I really think that Plural is an important guy too, along with Norah whatever-the-hell-her-name-is and Packard. Is it Norah? I'm awful about names.

Dave: Norah Still, yes.

Dexter: Okay. I mean, really, I'm just awful at naming people. Then I name them and I can't remember who they are. Somebody will come up to me in a store and say, "You remember what Rosie Sayers said?" And I just think, Who the hell is Rosie Sayers?

Dave: Your novels are hard to classify, particularly this one. That's generally a good thing it means you're doing something unique but of course in the world of publishing and bookselling people are always scrambling for labels.

Dexter: Yes, it's like movies: you want to be able to explain in one sentence. What's it about? You end up saying, "Three hundred pages."

Really, it's hard to say what Train is about. It's kind of about marriage. It's a little bit about talent. It's a little about potential. A lot of it's about friendship.

Dave: Readers will recognize various themes from your earlier novels, but you've never written about Los Angeles before. I suppose you could have moved the golf course, but you didn't.

Dexter: I couldn't. I tried. I got about halfway through this book, and I moved the whole thing to South Florida, which is an area I know a lot better. Having spent two weeks doing that, I realized you couldn't set it there because those were two entirely different places at the beginning of the fifties. L.A. was going through a huge migration, a huge change, which has been pretty extensively written about, where South Florida in the early fifties was really the old South, or at least the country club life was. As dead-end as this kid's future looked to him and was, in southern Florida at the time it would have been way worse.

So I tried, but I found about twenty things that wouldn't work, and I realized, I've got to go be uncomfortable in L.A. And I'm not comfortable there. I'm comfortable writing about New Orleans or Philly, not Seattle but Chicago a little bit or South Florida I do know those places. L.A., I go there all the time, but somebody picks me up in a car and takes me to a hotel. Somebody takes the bag up. Then I go have meetings with people until everybody's pissed off at me, and I go home. That's all I see of L.A. I certainly don't have any kind of a real grasp of the place, we're talking forty, fifty years ago.

Dave: Well, that leads right into another question: Your novels have been set in the early fifties (Paris Trout), the sixties (The Paperboy)? Why not write closer to the present?

Dexter: It's probably the same reason that I don't write about the place I live at any given time. I've got a short story about the island I live on in Playboy this month, I think, and my first book [God's Pocket], which I wrote while I was still in Philly, was about South Philly, but with those exceptions, I haven't written about where I am.

I like that feeling of being away from a place. Then I can write about it. While I'm still there, it's like a work in progress. Well, it's the same thing with time, in a way. I can look at the sixties in the newspaper business and Woodward and Bernstein and all that stuff and understand it in a way I trust. I can look at Milledgeville, Georgia, in the fifties and trust it because I was a four-year-old kid when that was going on; I have vivid memories of it. I can do Wild Bill Hickok in South Dakota [in Deadwood] because I know the Black Hills a little bit and I guess I felt like I knew some of the players. I knew Charlie Otter. I really understood that guy. Whereas if I start thinking about setting something in 2003, it just makes me antsy.

First of all, that's where almost everything is set. You sit down with some studio executives and tell them you want to set something in 1998, they'll say, "A period piece! Good God! That'll cost us a billion dollars!" Really, you can't believe it. Well, most of them were still in junior high school in 1998, the guys that are running the studios now.

Here's a kind of fiction I don't like: I don't like fiction filled up with names of current things, clothes and shoes and cars, all that stuff that won't mean anything to anyone in fifty years. So if you're going to pick a name, it shouldn't just be a style thing or what it means to people who watch TV or have access to the same kind of media that you do. It should be something that everybody will understand, that's obvious in some other way. And to tell you the truth, 2003?

I hate computers. Paris Trout, I lost that whole long middle section, one hundred ten pages. It was replaced by one line of bright yellow smiley faces at the end of it. I had to rewrite it all. But I didn't even like computers before that. That was the first book I ever wrote on one, thinking, Oh boy, this is great. I don't have to retype. I don't have anything against computers, but I don't like reading about them; I don't like reading about cell phones, all the technical stuff.

I'm going to jump back for one quick second and talk about that Robert Frost poem where he's talking about a kid; the only fun he had was what he made himself. That seemed to me to be a pretty profound thing, making your own fun. What do you do with that? Now, in this culture, the fun is there: it's a button. It's not even books anymore, which used to be considered somewhat sleazy, to sit around reading books all the time. Now that's too much work so you turn on the set or you play a GameBoy or something. It could speak to the end of culture, I don't know, but it doesn't show me anything except we're all lazy.

I'd always said that if someone had given me seventy years to live, I would have picked the first seventy years of the last century. Then somebody reminded me, shit, I have leg operations about twice a week. It's my hobby. If that had happened sixty or seventy years ago, I wouldn't have been walking around. Still, it gets back to an era where people did more for their own entertainment. Those are very revealing things to me. The more things that are done for you, the less you do for yourself, the less fun it is to read about it or write about it, as far as I'm concerned.

Boy, I can't even remember what question you asked me.

Dave: Past versus present.

Dexter: Right, well, that's one of the reasons why: I trust it.

Dave: You mentioned the idea of losing those pages. When Bharati Mukherjee was here last year, she explained that her writing process involves creating a draft, then putting it away and starting again at the beginning of the story with what she's learned. She doesn't reuse the pages she's written. The draft is an exploration, a way for her to find the story and its direction. That's how she drafts and rewrites.

I don't know that I've met many writers who could turn away from all those pages and start again from scratch.

Dexter: Didn't she lose a book in a fire or something?

Dave: She may have. But it's funny: after losing a hundred ten pages, you won a National Book Award for that novel. It might have been painful, and you might have been pissed off?

Dexter: You want to talk about painful and pissed off? I walked out into the kitchen when that happened, and we had an oak stool with a seat on it about an inch and a half thick. This is after I had just moved to California from Philadelphia, where I had spent fifteen years in the gym boxing, six days a week. Diane was standing in the kitchen. I didn't say a word. I just hit this stool as hard as I could. Of course I just ruined my hand. Somehow I thought I was going to be able to at least break the stool. It hurt so bad. I was almost in tears. I lost my book, I lost my punch? my dog doesn't like me. Christ, that was a moment of idiocy that I hadn't had since I was in my teens. I've hit people and not just in the gym but I've never hit inanimate objects. That's just disrespect for whatever poor hand you have left.

I threw the computer in the truck, and I must have stopped that thing half a foot from the computer store's plate glass window. Then the guy, he said, "Calm down, calm down, we can get this back for you. It may not be exact, but we can get it back." So I calmed down, and a few days later I went back. What this computer had done, I shit you not, it had taken one hundred ten pages of words and scattered them at random over all those pages. There was not a sentence, not two words? You talk about putting a manuscript in your desk? This is like finding a manuscript that you wrote in the mental asylum.

I wonder why Mukherjee does that. Think about what that must be like.

Dave: The impression I got was that there was something about the act of purging the story and something about telling it straight through learning it, then telling it better the second time.

Dexter: What happens if you publish the book, then you go back and look at the first manuscript and there's fifty really good things in there that you forgot the second time through? Of course, maybe she's just way smarter than I am. That's entirely possible. But I couldn't imagine doing that.

It's not like I cherish what I write or anything. I'm really vicious when I go back and look at what I've written. I'll work on a sentence for half a day, but I'd never just give it away.

Dave: Have you read anything good lately?

Dexter: I'm in the middle of two books I'm really enjoying the shit out of. The Bounty that's a good book.

Dave: Caroline Alexander.

Dexter: Right. And then there's this guy I'd never heard of, teaches a creative writing program up in the UP of Michigan; he's written two novels and a couple of short story collections. I just picked up a novel called Cold. I think his name is John Smolens.

Going back to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet, all these writers come along and each one is the new Chandler and Hammett. Well, you put this guy's stuff down next to anybody writing in that genre today, and he's better. The lines are clean? He isn't very funny he doesn't have any sense of humor that you can see but outside of that?

I ride a lot on an exercise bike. I do that for about an hour and a half a day. That's when I read that kind of stuff. Boy, it's just the best exercise book since Lonesome Dove. It's so much fun. Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm in one of those moods: I have a book coming out and I just want to be gracious to everybody but it seems like a really good book.

Dave: You mentioned Chandler. Hanna is reading The Big Sleep in Paris Trout.

Dexter: Is she?

Dave: She is. But I've read Paris Trout more recently than you, I suppose.

Dexter: I never read that book after it came out.

Dave: Well, to speak of crime fiction: There are several crimes committed in Train. And one of the main characters is a sergeant, he's in the police force?

Dexter: Maybe he is, and maybe he isn't.

Dave: Maybe he isn't?

Dexter: I'm not setting up a false thing here, but I look at him?

One reason it's not Packard's book is that you see all kinds of things through the kid's eyes, you see all kinds of things through Norah's eyes, and in the kid's vocabulary and Norah's vocabulary; you see things through Plural's eyes less. You see almost nothing through Packard's eyes. When you do, it's removed; he watches himself. He's seen partly through Train's eyes, but you get the real glimpses through Norah's eyes: the accident, and the things he wants, the way he is, how in a strange way he frightens her.

Looking from Norah's point of view, here's a guy who comes and goes; he's got money obviously; and he wouldn't be a person that would be settling some bureaucratic bullshit. He was there when she came out of the boat, but it's kind of a lingering question in my mind.

Dave: It did occur to me. I was probably about two-thirds of the way through the book, and I thought, Shit, this guy never works. He's golfing every day.

Dexter: And he comes and goes. I wouldn't want to golf that much, but I wouldn't mind. You play at all?

Dave: Not so much since I moved to Portland.

Dexter: I play with this guy a lot, I dedicated the book to him, Dr. Ploof. He's the best-read guy on Whidbey Island. A dentist. If you don't have any money, people go to him and give him ground pork and stuff instead. There was a guy on the island, weighed six hundred twenty pounds. He was a key maker. He must have thought I'd lost more keys than anybody alive because every time someone would come visit I'd want to take them over and show them this guy. You'd never see him stand up. A nice enough guy. He'd given up brushing his teeth and all that years ago. Nobody except Frank would work on him. He'd come in and they'd put the arms down to get him in the chair; then Frank and his assistant would both have to get under the chair and lift while the guy came up as much he could to get him into a position where they could work on him. Frank said, "The inside of that guy's cheeks were like that thick." He said, "Your hands would get all cramped from just holding his mouth open." But Frank's a guy that would always work on him.

I play golf with Frank. He plays that if you catch it before it hits the ground, it doesn't count as a stroke. You wouldn't believe it would come up that much for a guy fifty-five years old, but it does. And he can tell if anybody's thinking when he's trying to putt. It doesn't count if he misses and anyone was thinking.

Dave: Well, that kind of character and your brand of storytelling? There's a lot of good dialogue in Train, and also narrative has that ring of dialogue. For example, "Packard felt luckier than Moses in an inner tube."

Dexter: That's not a bad line. I forgot about that.

Dave: I marked several of those lines through the book. Does your skill with dialogue and voice stem at all from your background in journalism, do you think? From interviewing people?

Dexter: No, to me, that's the hard part about writing. I don't want to put myself in a position to say that I know what writing well is about because who knows, but when it seems to me that I'm writing well it's really just losing yourself in that person, in that view. You can't get them confused or else you'll lose the focus so fast. Moses in an inner tube, that reflects his whole story to that point and, in a funny way, who he is. I think all those things would legitimately come to the characters.

It's not from journalism. Obviously, journalism is why I know a lot of people, but it has more to do with empathy. Even before I could catch up with it in writing, I always had that kind of facility: I could look at somebody and put myself in their shoes easier than other people, maybe.

Dave: Your novels address race again and again. I recently read Jonathan Lethem's new book, The Fortress of Solitude, which is also about race, among other things. It's about two kids growing up in Brooklyn in the seventies one is white, one is black but when Lethem was here recently, he mentioned that relatively few people ask him questions about race. He supposed that it's just a difficult subject to broach. But you do keep coming back to it in your writing. Race couldn't be any more central to Train. It couldn't be any more central to Paris Trout. They're completely different books, yet race issues drive both.

Dexter: My earliest memory is being three years old, at my mother's wedding when she married my step dad. The next thing I remember is being in Milledgeville, Georgia, as a kid who was maybe four- or five-years-old. We lived there six years.

Paris Trout came from something that really happened. My dad was a schoolteacher, but everybody had a maid, and ours was named Mary. There was a sawmill down behind the cow pasture, and on the other side of that was The Bottoms. When Mary was supposed to be watching me she would sometimes take me down to her house in The Bottoms. As a five- or six-year-old kid, my eyes were like this. Everything seemed so different. And I grew up listening to her. I knew her mother a little bit. I still remember her mother saying she'd like to put a hatpin through somebody's back, talking about a white guy. And I remember this guy that taught with my dad he had a newspaper route; he delivered papers on Sunday. And he had a kid that was my age. We'd go around together. I can remember sitting in a car and the guy had all these papers to deliver, and he went through the papers and he'd get one that was all torn up on top, and he'd say, "These are the ones for the niggers."

I wasn't shocked or anything, but I filed all that stuff away. Then later when I began to get far enough away from it to understand and to weigh it, those things really stuck with me. It seemed to me like some very profound thing was going on there, and it seems to me it still is.

People want to know about race and they want to know about violence. When I was a journalist, especially when I did magazine stuff, I'd always try to follow someone around long enough? We could sit here talking for two days, but if I got scared or angry or, more likely, if my leg went out, you'd see a change in me, and the nature of that change would tell you more about me than answering all the questions in the world. Violence is something that tends to show people in a true light and it's not just like, I'm kind to black people so I'm a good person; it's not like that at all. To me, it's very ripe for revelation. You see things. One of the things you see is how blind people can be.

In a strange way, I just pick the easiest fruit to get to. The thing with Paris Trout: a lot of that happened. That guy did kill, though the girl was older than that; she was fourteen. And the town did find it in themselves to convict him of something, though not murder. Then he tore the heart out of that town; he took its most beloved citizen and all its hope for the future. I was on the street when that happened. I can still see the clouds coming in and hear the thunder. There was a parade going on, and all of a sudden there were shots upstairs.

Dave: What are the differences in payoff between being a journalist and a novelist?

Dexter: I was having a wonderful time in Philadelphia. If there were ever other papers like the Philadelphia Daily News was in those days, they're gone. Top to bottom, I was completely tolerated, and I was a load.

I'd go anyplace in that city and people were nice to me and were glad to see me; they'd have folded-up columns in their wallet that they'd saved. And you'd hear the god damnedest stories you'll ever hear in your life. People call you up and tell you things. Just amazing stories. That was a lot of fun. And the eight or nine-hundred words or whatever it was in those days writing fast is fun. It's not as good, of course, but if you can write eight or nine hundred words in an hour or two? It's the only time writing's ever been any fun for me. If you're sitting there fighting your way through a sentence, trying to get it right tonally, get the right cadence, it's not as much fun. So I loved that.

And I loved the guys I worked with. Chuck Stone was the black columnist. He wore a crew cut and a bow tie. Once a week at least, a murderer would come into the Daily News to turn himself in to Chuck. If you were black and you killed somebody in Philadelphia, you turned yourself in to Chuck so the police wouldn't tune you up when they arrested you. These guys were always wandering in. Then once in a while somebody would come in that had raped someone, and Chuck wouldn't turn them in. Chuck didn't think it was so bad to murder, but rape? And they had this huge riot at Graterford Prison where they took hostages, half a dozen white guards, all these really bad black guys down there. They said they were going to kill everyone unless Chuck went down there. Chuck Stone took off his bow tie and went down there, spent two days inside, and saved every one of those white guards. He was hated in the white community these were racial times but he couldn't have been a sweeter guy.

My friend Jack McKinney was a wonderful boxing writer. He was always a drinker, an opera lover, and a great reader. He once disappeared from the paper for a week and nobody knew where he was. He showed up in Sandusky, Ohio. He'd taken on a professional fight just to see how it would go. He'd gotten both his eyes closed and knocked somebody out at the end of the first round, then he retired undefeated. He was bigger than life.

I did something incredibly stupid by going out to the west coast. If I were going to get out of the business, I should have done it then clean, but I didn't and I was sorry. By the time I got out of the business it wasn't any fun.

Dave: And now, as a novelist, what's the writing like in comparison?

Dexter: I work at night, from midnight till four or five, and once in a while I'll have a real good night or I'll get my thousand words in. And that's fun it's like writing a column used to be. The next day I usually have to tear it all up, but those things are the same.

Writing a book is more stress. You write a bad column, it goes away. You write a bad book? And the writing part isn't that easy to me. I'm not complaining, working three or four hours a day it's not like real work. The day you finish, it feels good. Then you wait around for reviews and see if it sells, and that's not fun for me. I don't like that end of it. And as you point out, you write another book, it's called Train, and people come up and say, "What's it about?" I never know.

I'm not comfortable with that whole, "He's an author. What kind of books do you write?" Going into grocery stores and having people stop me, it was fun at first, but it got really old. That's one of the reasons I'm on Whidbey Island because nobody knows. Most people don't even believe it that I write screenplays or books, but occasionally pictures show up in the newspapers. The questions last for a day or two, then it'll just go back to the way it is.

Pete Dexter visited Powell's Hawthorne location on October 9, 2003.

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Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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