In a nearly autobiographical novel, award-winning author Pete Dexter draws a loving portrait of a stepdad.
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Calmer and Lily raise three brilliant children and Spooner. As a teen, Spooner discovers he has a gift for pitching – and promptly shatters his golden arm after signing with the Cubs. From there, he tries out a number of dead-end careers before stumbling into a Florida newspaper. He’s not any better at reporting, but he winds up a columnist at the Philadelphia Daily News (where Dexter worked), before turning his hand to novels. (Dexter has Spooner author his own novel, “Deadwood,” and re-creates a hysterical reading with Margaret Truman that cannot be repeated in a family paper.)Skip to next paragraph
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Dexter also re-creates an incident from 1981, when he and professional boxer Tex Cobb (here called Harry Faint) were beaten in a South Philly bar. (The beating ultimately helped end Cobb’s career.) Spooner suffers numerous broken bones and a fractured back. Just reading about the beating and the botched surgery that follows is rough, because there’s no way for a reader to hide behind a cushion of fiction. But Dexter calmly lays out the breakdown Spooner had in the days before the beating, explains how the column that sparked so much ire was flawed, and matter-of-factly brings out the baseball bats. Needless to say, Calmer is there when Spooner wakes up from the surgeries.
For newspaper fans, if there are any left, Dexter is absolutely dead-on about life at a daily. Here’s his take on the column that causes such pain: “Spooner wrote the column as if the kid mattered to him, while the truth was he couldn’t even picture the dead boy, couldn’t gather the energy even to try. This picturing was the absolute, ground-floor requisite for this sort of newspaper column, and without it the column emerged from Spooner’s typewriter as dead as the boy himself, and as ordinary as a box of cereal.
Spooner had two things he absolutely knew about writing, and the column about the dead boy flew in the face of number one – you can get away with anything except pretending to care. The other rule, if you’re interested, is that nobody wants to hear about what you dreamed last night.”
“Spooner” isn’t a perfect novel. In addition to a certain shaggy-dog quality, for which, frankly, I’m a sucker, the novel meanders its way to Whidbey Island off Seattle and some ugly events involving a homosexual couple that I really hope weren’t drawn from life. And several major characters get rather short shrift. For example, I felt the long-suffering second Mrs. Spooner deserved both a first name and a more fleshed-out characterization than just repeated descriptions of her “elegant” posterior.
But if “Spooner” isn’t perfect, it’s something almost as rare: It’s alive.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.