Friday, July 3, 2009


Pete Dexter's new novel, SPOONER, is scheduled to be published in September. (Grand Central Publishing is putting it out.) In an advance word to potential readers and reviewers, Dexter noted that this MS. was in rougher shape than they might be accustomed to, and that many changes are possible before the book actually goes on sale. So take those words, and mine, for what their worth. (For one thing, he or a copy editor really needs to go through the book to clean up a raft of typos and grammatical problems.)

Dexter's career is an interesting one, especially to somebody like me. An ink-stained wretch who attracted attention as a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News about thirty years ago, he then turned his energies toward writing novels. One of his earliest efforts, PARIS TROUT, won the National Book Award in 1988.

PARIS TROUT is a terrific book that I recommend without hesitation. I'm not so sure about SPOONER, a sprawling novel about a man who resembles Pete Dexter. I warmed up to it as I went along, but I don't know if readers will have the patience to slog through the first two hundred or so pages before they get to the good stuff.

The novel's arc is linear, beginning with the birth of Warren Spooner and following his childhood, coming of age and stuff like that. The spine of the novel concerns Spooner's relationship with his stepfather, the unusually well-named Calmer Ottosson.

As their lives unfold, it turns out that Calmer is a saint and Spooner is a fuck-up. Generally speaking, I don't like stories about fuck-ups, especially youthful ones. Usually they grow up to be George W. Bush. Probably the most famous literary fuck-up of the 20th century was Holden Caulfield. I may have been the only 1970s-era high school student who disliked THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, and I was delighted to read recently in The Times that modern high school students now take a dim view of the book's once-iconic protagonist. The young generation of today is a lot more sensible than many of its predecessors.

But I digress.

Somewhere along the line, for reasons that are never entirely made clear, Spooner straightens out and becomes as productive a member of society as a newspaperman can be. This is where the book begins to work. Spooner has a number of Pete Dexter-like adventures, including a near-death experience at the hands of a Philadelphia mob. Spooner's capacity for self-destruction borders on the staggering. It's a tendency that he's aware of, but can't explain. Through it all, Calmer is a rock who keeps his stepson's life anchored.

The bonds between stepfather and stepson gain strength as the two men grow older. Eventually Spooner holes up with his family on an island in Puget Sound, leading the Solitary Novelist life. Calmer, by now a widower, comes to stay with them. Roles are reversed (as they frequently are) as the old man's life winds down.

Given the obviously autobiographical nature of the material, I sometimes found myself wondering why Dexter didn't just give in to the great literary trend of the last fifteen years and write a memoir. At times the book meanders, as opposed to the airtight construction of PARIS TROUT. There's no plot; SPOONER is more a series of reminiscinces. On the other hand, calling it a novel avoids the now-nearly-inevitable charges of fabrication that cling like barnacles to top-selling memoirs, and it's a tribute to Dexter's intellectual honesty that he decided to put this book in its proper category once he determined he had to make up some stuff.

The pity, though, is that he has several taking-off points for a novel, but never follows through on any of them. Any one of SPOONER's several sections could have been amplified into a stand-alone book (with a plot), but instead the parts sail along on the strength of Dexter's sharp prose until they end, without much of a point being made. I felt as if I was reading the first or second draft of a book with a lot of potential. While nobody enjoys being edited, it is an essential process, and I felt that Dexter and his readers might have been better served if somebody at Grand Central Publishing had said: "Y'know, Pete, you've got a lot of interesting stuff here. Pick the one section that interests you the most, and write the hell out of it."

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