Stephen Dixon, prolific writer of experimental, unsettling fiction, dies at 83

WASHINGTON — 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 Wednesday 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 when he was 40, but he made up for lost time in publishing some 30 novels and story collections, usually letting no more than a week or two lapse 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 killed by a highway gunman.

‘‘One doesn’t exactly read a story by Stephen Dixon; one submits to it,’’ author Alan 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.

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 Nathan Frey’s daughter, in a senseless act of killing while they are driving down the highway.

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 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 name and that of her children. She selected Dixon out of a phone book.

After graduating from City College of New York 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 Johnson, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. One night, he began writing his first short story, about a man who flirts with women at a park in Washington.


‘‘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, cofounder 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.

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; two sisters; and a grandson.

Mr. Dixon 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).