How does a Sacramento Bee columnist come to write a novel about a murder in Cotton Point, Ga., in the late 1940s?
The short answer is: He grows up there.
Pete Dexter lived in Georgia from his fifth to his ninth year and often returns: “Seems like I just end up down there, Georgia, Tennessee. No family there, mostly friends. An ex-wife down there too, somewhere.”
But that answers only the Georgia half of the question. How does a Georgia boy start writing about a murder?
Here the answer is: He becomes a columnist.
As thrice-weekly columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, Dexter sometimes wrote about his dog or his little sister. More often, his columns opened like this: “The woman is 45 years old and has six grown kids. She lives in public housing near Oxford Circle with the youngest, a daughter, who is 20 years old. ‘It’s always your favorite that breaks your heart,’ she says. The daughter is killing herself with drugs.”
There was talk, for a time, that the New York Daily News would hire Dexter, alternate him with Jimmy Breslin. But Dexter doesn’t like New York. He likes Sacramento, where his boss is an old friend from Florida. He likes it even when the stories don’t quite drop on his desk the way they did in Philly.
Asked about his double career, Dexter answers: “When you write for a newspaper, they deliver it on Wednesday morning, it’s in the trash by Thursday. When you write a book, you’re hoping they aren’t going to throw it out the next day.”
And so “you’re a lot more careful. It’s like when I met my first wife, I thought she was beautiful. Then one day about six months down the road, I looked under the table and discovered she had enormous legs.”
Pete Dexter is a writer who has learned how to look under the table.