Book World: Carolyn See Reviews 'Spooner' by Pete Dexter
Friday, October 2, 2009
By Pete Dexter
Grand Central. 469 pp. $26.99
Full disclosure: I was on the judging committee when Pete Dexter won the National Book Award for his amazing novel of American racism and mayhem, "Paris Trout." That book is among this country's very best, I believe, and I remain one of his most devoted fans. His is a voice like no other, though James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard may be counted among his distant literary cousins.
What Dexter does is to marry the use of the most frightening violence with the loftiest of artistic goals; we are forced to look at our country through a film of fresh blood. This is not a literary conceit on the part of the author; it has to do with his real life. In 1981, when he was a hard-boiled columnist for a Philadelphia newspaper, he wrote a piece that enraged members of a very tough neighborhood. He -- rather unwisely -- went to that neighborhood, either to confront or to explain, and was beaten within the proverbial inch of his life. He carries the scars and afflictions from that encounter to this day. His obsession with violence is honestly come by, and all his novels are stamped by it.
In "Spooner," his autobiographical new novel, Dexter takes a look at himself, implicitly admitting that he's a little on the high-strung side, to put it mildly. He attempts -- if I read him correctly -- to answer the question: What makes a person turn out to be like Pete Dexter? It's a hard question for a person trained as a journalist who's used to looking outward, or for a man of action who prefers boxing to many other pastimes. How do you look inside and come up with an answer that makes sense? (The project must have been hard. The author writes that the book went 3 1/2 years beyond its publication deadline. "When you come across sentences you particularly don't like, keep in mind that I probably didn't like them either.")
Nevertheless, here's a novel that's different from anything Dexter has written before. His namesake, Spooner, born in 1956, comes second in a cluster of four siblings. His mother is a martyr whose family lost its fortune in the Great Depression, and his father died too young for Spooner to know him. Most of the first 50 pages are given over to describing the back story of a paragon -- the saintly man who became Spooner's stepfather -- who makes a hardscrabble living for his new family as a teacher in the hardscrabble town of Milledgeville, Ga., all the while bearing ill-concealed dismay and sometimes contempt from Spooner's mother. (The town of Milledgeville is real; Dexter speaks in an interview of his first conscious memories being from that place, and also says that the African American section of that town served as the background for "Paris Trout.")
The young Spooner is a nut case, pure and simple, getting into one crazy scrape after another, most notably breaking into the homes of neighbors, peeing into the shoes of the men of the house, then putting those shoes into the families' refrigerators. He engineers car wrecks, climbs on every roof, gets into all the trouble he possibly can -- in marked contrast to his three siblings, who succeed in every way.
Flash forward to Spooner as a young adult, first in Florida, then in Pennsylvania. He works himself up from crashing poverty to a position as a noted newspaper columnist. Then comes the infamous "God's Pocket" episode (here the neighborhood is called Devil's Pocket, as is the actual Philadelphia area where that novel was set), where almost every bone in his body is twisted or broken by a gang of irate thugs. He is married by then, and just as tough -- and irrational? -- as they come, until he's felled by this attack.
Spooner moves to Whidbey Island, off the Pacific Northwest coast, where he continues work as a novelist. (The story remains unnervingly autobiographical. There is a Dr. Ploof, for instance, who in real life is a dentist on that island.) Combative as ever, Spooner finds himself locked in battle with a next-door neighbor. Bulldozers are involved. And that wonderful stepfather, whose separate life the author has followed all along, takes sick and dies, honorably cared for by Spooner, who is still not sure about having lived up to his mentor's shining example of compassion, industry, learning and love.
This is strange material for a man who wrote unsparingly of the grossness of smallpox in "Deadwood," the merciless rape and destruction of a little girl in "Paris Trout" and the eating of raw flamingos in "Train." It's new ground and a new tone. Jocose, ironic, even cheery. (The author's photo shows the man smiling!) Dexter seems to look at this life as something of a tall tale, and he's right -- there are sentences that don't seem to be exactly his. The book has a Mark Twain feel to it: Of journalists, Spooner remarks: "Some of them drank too much after work and threatened to write books," and the ghost of Hemingway creeps in during the Devil's Pocket debacle: "It was surprising to him how good it felt, knowing he was not about to be shot." There are other quite goofy surprises -- Spooner appears on the same dais with Margaret Truman, an event that must have happened to Dexter but, one hopes, without quite the chaos described here. That story is a lovely paean to crazy old ladies and their book clubs everywhere.