What if your twin brother was the favoured son of your mother? And what if that very twin brother happened to have died during childbirth? That’s the basic setup for the latest novel by National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter (he won for 1988’s Paris Trout), which should give you a pretty good indication of the general zaniness and pathos to be found in equal measure between the covers.
Originally published in hardcover in 2009, and released in paperback late last year, Spooner is a Bildungsroman of a hapless young boy named Warren Spooner (who generally goes by his surname) growing up in, at first, a small Southern town and, later, suburban Illinois, and the tragicomic happenings of both his youth and his adulthood. The write-up on the back of the novel might lead you to believe that it’s a moving tale of the bond between fathers and sons, or, in this case, step-fathers and sons, given that Spooner’s biological dad dies off pretty early on. However, would be a bit misleading, as the step-father in this case – one Calmer Ottosson, a man who has experienced his own (mostly career-based) failings in life – is barely there, at least, until the novel calls upon the character to step out of the woodwork. So what we have here is a book about the trials and tribulations of growing up when you’re the dim light bulb of the family (one of Spooner’s younger brothers learns to speak Latin at the age of five, to give you an indication of what the protagonist is up against).
Spooner is a bit of an odd book in that it combines humour and tragedy, often in the same breath, as we track the growth of its main character. It ‘s an uneasy combination, and requires a bit of an acquired taste in order to truly appreciate the coloring. Are we meant to cry when Spooner gets expelled from kindergarten, or laugh because the reason for his casting out is due to the fact that he sprouts a (very premature for his age) erection while having his tangled hair washed out by his teacher? Are we supposed to recoil in horror as young Spooner breaks into his neighbour’s house and proceeds to urinate in a grown man’s shoes, or giggle at this because the victim is a racist Southern bigot? And, as an adult, are we supposed to feel uneasy when Spooner and his friend, a boxer, get beat up by a bunch of ghetto punks in Philadelphia, or guffaw at the absurdity of Spooner’s sustained injuries? So it goes.
While Dexter has a bit of a light touch and a ribald eye for grimy detail, the tragedy does get a little wearing, at times. In fact, this novel is a bit of a downer in some respects, and it took me nearly a month and a half to get through its 450-plus pages simply because it kept pulling me down on its dark side.
What Spooner ultimately is, though, is a very thinly veiled semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own life. Spooner is born in the South, just like the author was. Spooner is raised by a step-father, just like the author was. Spooner becomes a newspaper reporter as an adult, just like the author did. Spooner gets the aforementioned beating by a crowd of young men unhappy with an article that he wrote, which parallels an event in the author’s own life. (You can actually Wikipedia the incident by looking under Pete Dexter’s own entry, though one should take that website with a grain of salt.) And then Spooner moves to Whidbey Island in Washington State, which just happens to be the residence of the author. And on and on.
What’s more, you get a sense that Dexter is just painting by numbers things that he experienced, rather than getting inside the character’s heads as nobody really “grows up” in this novel. Spooner remains an aloof but somewhat successful man as he heads into middle age, but we never get a sense of what changed internally within him to make him somewhat happy about his hapless circumstances. Thus, the novel seems to be just a series of unfortunate events, a catalogue of catastrophe as, for instance, we watch Spooner become a great baseball pitcher in high school, only to have his pitching arm thrown out en route to the major leagues. Spooner is written with too much of a reporter’s eye, and not enough of novelistic observation that would allow these characters to fully become three-dimensional.
The (rather lengthy) afterword of the book details that the first draft was some 800 manuscript pages long, and it was whittled down by about 250 pages or so. The editing shows, as you can pretty much see the seams in which the novel hangs together. There are a series of one paragraph chapters that act as a bridging section between various stages of Spooner’s life, and I would suppose that’s where the cuts were made. I’m not sure if Spooner would have been a better read with the bloat left in, but the novel actually feels like a bunch of disembodied short stories strung together without form or purpose.
There’s also the matter of Spooner’s success in life, which seems artificial in execution, somehow. As a kid, he almost flunks out of school and doesn’t like to read, but he matures to become not only a columnist but a novelist, as well. I found this aspect a little tough to swallow. Reading is almost a prerequisite for become a successful writer, or at least a very good one worth thumbing through a book for. You’re left wondering if this is another autobiographical statement on the author’s part, a reflection of his own habits cut and pasted onto his characters.
All this is not to say that Spooner is not a bad book. It’s just an average one. Truthfully, I found the first half of the book, the growing up part, to be the most satisfying aspect of the journey. I was a bit of a hellraiser as a child, doing things that would probably get me arrested as an adult, so I could certainly relate to Spooner’s constant youthful troublemaking and boundary pushing. However, there’s a bit more to it than that. You see, Spooner as an adult just isn’t very interesting. I can’t really put a finger on it, but I guess it’s a matter of watching someone generally mess up their lives continuously and not learn anything along the way (at least, until the end of the novel) that struck me as being something of a matter of pointlessness.
That said, the novel can be deliciously profane at times, and you might walk away from the book – at least, until the sentimental ending in which things come around full circle – feeling just a little bit dirty, but in a good way. And there were some who liked this novel as it was, after all, named a Best Book of the Year by both the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly and was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice. Still, when all is said and done, you get the lingering feeling that if Pete Dexter was out to write what he knew and pen a story about life how he lived it, his tale might ahve been better served if he’d just written a memoir, instead. Spooner is a half-successful book, a flawed portrait of, perhaps all in all, the artist Pete Dexter as a young man.
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