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Stephen Dixon, a prolific novelist and short-story writer whose humorous, freewheeling fiction traced the shocks and jolts of romance, aging and everyday life, in an experimental but plain- spoken style that brought readers deep inside the minds of his characters, died Nov. 6 at a hospice center in Towson, Md. He was 83.
The cause was pneumonia and complications from Parkinson’s disease, said his daughter Sophia Frydman.
Mr. Dixon, a retired creative writing professor at Johns Hopkins University, published well over 500 short stories in the Paris Review, Playboy, Esquire and legions of small magazines across the country. His first book came out only when he was 40, but he made up for lost time in publishing 35 more novels and story collections, usually letting no more than a week or two elapse between projects.
His work was sprawling and sometimes manic, with run-on sentences, endless paragraphs and an immersive style that detailed the messy, meandering thoughts of protagonists such as Gould Bookbinder, a sex- obsessed college professor, and Nathan Frey, a father whose young daughter is murdered by a highway gunman.
“One doesn’t exactly read a story by Stephen Dixon; one submits to it,” author Alan H. Friedman wrote in a New York Times review of Mr. Dixon’s novel “Frog” (1991), about a lecherous teacher named Howard Tetch. “An unstoppable prose expands the arteries while an edgy, casual nervousness overpowers the will.”
Mr. Dixon was sometimes described as an experimental realist, a writer who tinkered with storytelling conventions while remaining true to life. He was twice a finalist for the National Book Award, for “Frog” and “Interstate” (1995), and several of his stories were included in Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award collections.
Nonetheless, he never cracked the bestseller lists and counted 14 publishers for his first 28 books. For decades, he was described as a seminal “writer’s writer” — “one of the great secret masters,” as novelist Jonathan Lethem put it — a devoted craftsman who kept working at his Hermes manual typewriter well into the digital age, refining an approach that mixed poignancy with humor.
In his story “Crows,” a character realizes he can apparently point a finger into the sky and shoot a bird dead. A long-dead father in “Time to Go” hectors his son about the price and size of wedding rings, and in “Sleep,” a man is troubled by the selfish thought that flashes through his mind at the moment of his wife’s death: “Now I can get some sleep.”
Almost all of Mr. Dixon’s works began as stories. Some simply grew into novels, which generally retained the fragmentary, non-chronological format of his collections. Their narratives homed in on mundane, seemingly trivial details — the way a soiled diaper is removed from a baby; the collection of change for a basement washing machine — even as they were shadowed by tragedies and misfortunes that echoed Mr. Dixon’s own life.
His wife, a poet, translator and Chekhov scholar, had multiple sclerosis and used a wheelchair. His father, a dentist, was imprisoned as a middleman in an illegal abortion ring. A sister was diagnosed with Proteus syndrome, which causes physical abnormalities, and a brother disappeared at sea. Another sibling was killed by a falling tree, an accident that inspired the beginning of Mr. Dixon’s novel “Phone Rings” (2005), written as a kind of elegy to his brother.
Mr. Dixon’s protagonists were often neurotic, daydreaming fantasists — writers, frequently, with turbocharged sex drives and a tendency toward digression and contradiction. On the page, descriptions of their actions were peppered with dashes and ellipses, in a loose style that Salon reviewer Roger Gathman described as “writing that has come out in its undershirt.”
Conflicting perspectives unspooled in novels such as “Frog,” which included alternate accounts of the death of Tetch’s brother and the way his parents first met, and a dreamlike scene in which his family is transported to the Auschwitz death camp. Similarly, “Interstate” featured eight versions of the death of Frey’s daughter, in a senseless act of killing while they are driving down the highway.
His writing seemed to suggest “that reality has multiple aspects,” as Times reviewer William Ferguson once wrote, “that what we see is not fixed and unified but a jumble of competing versions.”
Stephen Bruce Ditchik was born in Manhattan on June 6, 1936, the fifth of seven children. His mother, Florence Leder Ditchik, was a beauty queen and chorus girl on Broadway, later an interior decorator.
His father, Abraham M. Ditchik, was accused by a special prosecutor of “collecting fabulous sums of money for public officials in a citywide abortion racket” and convicted in 1940 of conspiracy, extortion and attempted bribery. He was sentenced to up to four years and six months in Sing Sing prison and lost his dentistry license, leading Florence to change her children’s last name. She selected Dixon out of a phone book.
At City College of New York, Mr. Dixon enrolled in a dentistry program, planning to enter the family business. He found himself revolted by animal dissections and the smell of formaldehyde, then switched to international relations; nonetheless, he would later quip that he had likely written “more about dentistry than any writer alive.”
After graduating in 1958, he moved to Washington, where his oldest brother worked in journalism, and landed a job in radio. By his telling, he interviewed Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. On a whim one night, he began writing his first short story, about a man who flirts with women in Rock Creek Park.
“It was like a cork popping out of my skull,” he recalled in an interview with Johns Hopkins Magazine. “I was in ecstasy.”
In the early 1960s, he moved to New York, where he worked as an editor at CBS News and typed fiction alone at lunch. A colleague, journalist Hughes Rudd, asked to read some of his stories and sent two to George Plimpton, co-founder of the Paris Review. The magazine published Mr. Dixon’s first piece, “The Chess House,” in 1963.
Mr. Dixon received a Wallace Stegner creative writing fellowship from Stanford University and, when his funding ran out, supported himself with work as a schoolteacher, tour leader, bus driver, department store sales clerk, artist’s model, waiter and bartender.
In 1976, he published his first book, “No Relief,” and pocketed $600 in royalties. His publisher went bankrupt soon after the release of his second, “Work” (1977), leaving Mr. Dixon unpaid. The novel, about a New York bartender, was about the difficulties of finding a job and keeping it — an achievement that largely eluded Mr. Dixon until he joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 1980.
Mr. Dixon, who retired in 2007, taught at the school alongside his wife, Anne Frydman, whom he married in 1982; she died in 2009. In addition to his daughter, survivors include another daughter, Antonia Frydman, both of Brooklyn; two sisters; and a grandson.
Mr. Dixon, a resident of Ruxton, Md., wrote two books about his Bookbinder character, “Gould: A Novel in Two Novels” (1997) and “30: Pieces of a Novel” (1999). His other novels included “I” (2002), a patchwork of 19 stories about an unnamed protagonist who reappeared in “End of I” (2006), and “His Wife Leaves Him” (2013).
He said he wrote compulsively, whenever he had a few minutes free, and had tried but failed to take an extended leave from his typewriter. “I get all pent up and frustrated and anxious and I feel worthless,” he told Johns Hopkins Magazine. “I’m not doing anything! How many books can you read without wanting to write one?”
Harrison Smith is a reporter on The Washington Post's obituaries desk. Since joining the obituaries section in 2015, he has profiled big-game hunters, fallen dictators and Olympic champions. He sometimes covers the living as well, and previously co-founded the South Side Weekly, a community newspaper in Chicago. Follow