Pete Dexter has lived most of his 43 years with the persistent dread that at any given moment someone on the planet might be having more fun than he is. One way he used to ease this fear was to go to the Rosati gym in South Philadelphia and spar with a rambunctious young heavyweight named Randall (Tex) Cobb.
"Oh, those were glorious battles," says the 5'10", 160-pound Dexter. "At the first sight of my own blood, I'd call Randall's mother in Texas. I'd tell her what her son had just done. Then I'd put Randall on and let Norma wear him out for hurting me."
But Dexter knows about toughness and resiliency, as this week's profile of hard-charging jockey Vicky Aragon (see page 48) attests.
"If you learn anything from being hurt, then you are looking at one smart and perceptive human being," he says.
Besides all the broken bones he suffered "horsing around" in early life, Dexter nearly died 12 years ago when a Portuguese man-of-war stung him while he was swimming off one of the Florida Keys. Five years ago he was severely beaten by a pipe-wielding gang of thugs who were enraged at a column he had written for the Philadelphia Daily News about a drug-related killing. In a subsequent fight with the gang, only the intervention of his close friend Cobb saved his life, though Dexter suffered head injuries that so altered his sense of taste that alcohol is now about as appetizing to him as battery acid. "All of a sudden, I had an extra 50 or 60 hours a week with nothing to do," he deadpans. "So I started writing more stuff."
The result was two critically acclaimed novels, God's Pocket and Deadwood. Now he's working on a third, while writing a thrice-weekly column for The Sacramento Bee and turning out pieces such as the one for SI (Dec. 8, 1986) on Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Dexter's dedication to the contemplative life of a writer would have been hard to predict. "I was always the one who just wanted to raise hell and shoot out the windows," he says of his formative years in Georgia and the rural Midwest. Adds his brother Tom Tollefson, a copy editor at The Billings ( Mont.) Gazette, "He would sometimes wreck more than one car a night. Jeeps in particular were a little high-centered for Peter."
Dexter gained underground fame at the University of South Dakota for being the skinny kid who infuriated Coyote football players by beating them in arm wrestling. Academics, meanwhile, made him restless. He preferred cross-country excursions allowing him to see life firsthand.
Dexter still shadowboxes and works the heavy bag, but he doesn't spar. "When I want to get rowdy, I just wrestle with my wife, Dian," he says. "When she hurts me, I call her mother."