'Spooner' by Pete Dexter
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Like Warren Spooner, his wounded, likable hero, Pete Dexter has trouble finding his groove. In "a note to early readers," he says his first novel in six years was too long in the making and is "three years late." He also warns that some of the sentences could stand improvement.
Not to worry. Dexter's novel, despite an occasionally puzzling plot and jumpy narrative, is a good, wise novel in which the last 150 pages are surprisingly moving.
Like the title character, Dexter has been a newspaper columnist, a novelist and lives on an island off the coast of Washington state.
The novel reads like a tall tale. Dexter, who has a genius for names, often evokes Mark Twain in tone and vernacular command and his humor is palpable. But it's his feel for family that makes this novel and his appreciation for orneriness keeps the sentimentality at bay.
Grand Central Publishing ($26.99)
By the time he's an adult, life has dealt Spooner so many blows that he could easily be a broken man, but he has an ace in the hole:
Calmer Ottosson, a naval officer drummed out of the service.
When Calmer marries his mother Lily, Spooner finally gets a glimpse of domestic stability. The book gains weight and power as the relationship between Spooner and his stepfather deepens and both age.
It becomes downright moving when Spooner, his mother and her husband move to Whidbey Island, where Spooner writes novels and Calmer slides into dementia.
On Whidbey Island, the Spooners live next to Hiram Dodge; his Labrador retriever, Lester Maddox; Hiram's trust-fund grandson, Marlin; and Alexi Sugg, an oiled body-builder who's Marlin's partner.
Marlin and Alexi, whom Spooner calls "the grandson" and "Atlas Shrugged," want to get Hiram out of the house, claiming he's incompetent. Hiram and Calmer become friends, the conflict between Spooner and the gay couple quickens, and the novel becomes a wise, salty probe into the politics of suburbia.
It's also a testament to marriage. While Mrs. Spooner writes the checks, cooks and files the trouble-shooting manuals, "... Spooner had his end of things, too. He was in charge of American literature, for instance, and unscrewing jar lids, and routinely offered to help in other ways except they both knew better than to let him near the tool box."
Spooner does, however, learn how to get his mind and heart around his family -- and his neighborhood. Sure, he stumbles and then some. He fell into journalism after blowing a career as a beer truck driver, got divorced, remarried and became a novelist.
So "Spooner" also is about being a writer. I sense that Dexter struggled mightily to produce this novel. It's a largely successful birth.
First Published September 20, 2009 12:00 am