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.
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?”
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.)
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.