In a nearly autobiographical novel, award-winning author Pete Dexter draws a loving portrait of a stepdad.
What’s the worst thing that can happen to a little boy in a book? Nah, being orphaned isn’t so terrible – how are you going to have any adventures with your parents hovering over you? But a step-parent? Now, that’s seriously bad news.Skip to next paragraph
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Unless of course, you are Warren Spooner. Spooner, the new novel by National Book Award winner Pete Dexter (“Paris Trout”) is proudly – almost painfully – autobiographical. And under its knockout prose and profanity-riddled exterior lies one of the most loving portraits of a stepfather in American literature.
Calmer Ottosson is the anti-Murdstone. After his outstanding Navy career is scuttled by a freak chain of events involving a Taft-sized congressman’s burial at sea, Calmer heads to Milledgeville, Ga. There, his deep-seated need to fix things soon leads him to Spooner’s widowed mom and her troubled little boy. While Calmer never understands Spooner, he never gives up on him, either. (Dexter seems to approach his main character in a similar way.)
Spooner isn’t mischievous in the traditional Tom Sawyer vein. Instead, the 5-year-old does things he can’t quite explain, such as sneak into neighbors’ homes at night and pee in their shoes, or sit on a nest of fire ants – after making sure that the ants are good and riled first. Calmer literally saves Spooner’s life during that incident, suffering dozens of stings himself as he races the boy to a tub. (Frankly, given the virulent racism in Milledgeville portrayed in the novel, Spooner may have had the right idea about those shoes.)
His mother, an asthmatic who solves problems by taking to her bed, has no idea what to do with Spooner, who manages to get expelled from kindergarten. (In point of fact, Lily’s favorite child is Spooner’s stillborn twin.) So, Calmer tries puppies and hunting and endless games of catch – in between patching and repairing Spooner’s grandmother’s house, teaching school, and devising math games for Spooner’s brilliant older sister, Margaret.
Schoolteachers, however, don’t make a lot of money, and decency is not a quality prized by American society. As Calmer is passed over for promotions, Lily comes to resent her hardworking, endlessly kind husband. Lily isn’t just a glass-is-half-empty kind of gal. Her family, who, we are given to understand, used to be quite prominent in rural Georgia, subscribes more to the ethos of “Hey, who stole half my drink and why isn’t this thing Waterford?”