four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
43-Nov-Dec-2009
By: 
Pete Dexter
user_rating: 
0

A-SpoonerPete Dexter won the National Book Award for Paris Trout; his other works include Deadwood, Brotherly Love, The Paperboy, Train, and Paper Trails. Spooner, a picaresque family drama, is semiautobiographical.

The Story: Spooner chronicles the bizarre, colorful life of Warren Spooner, who grows up in small-town Georgia after a near-calamitous birth in 1956. When his father dies, Calmer Ottosson, a court-martialed naval officer turned high school principal, assumes paternal duties. As their relationship deepens over the years, Spooner floats from being a baseball pitcher to a newspaper reporter in Philadelphia, a novelist, and finally a family man. But bad choices and zany misadventures, including angry bar brawls, a stampede of old ladies, and fights with neighbors in Puget Sound, prevent him from being understood by his patient, honorable stepfather.
Grand Central Publishing. 469 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780446540728

Miami Herald 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Page after page, like a boxer pummeling an overmatched opponent, Dexter hammers out writing just this side of sanity, revealing the sort of thoughts and inner narrative and bizarre insights other authors might occasionally entertain but wouldn’t dare commit to the printed page. … Spooner [is] near the top of my list of great American novels." Fred Grimm

Denver Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In Spooner, you also come upon a few of the more memorable set pieces in recent literature: the burial at sea that opens the novel, that bar brawl and its aftermath, an encounter between a Jaguar sports car and a snowblower, plus a scene involving the onset of a man’s dementia that inadvertently results in some beautiful payback. … Spooner reaffirms Dexter’s place in the first ranks of contemporary novelists." William Porter

Entertainment Weekly 4 of 5 Stars
"Pete Dexter, the gorgeous writer of hard beauties like Paris Trout, will make you laugh yourself into a fit one page and hold back tears the next, even though he sometimes lets his story careen off the rails (particularly in later scenes of Spooner’s adult life). Throughout this sprawling heart-thumper of a read, the writing goes down like a feast." Karen Valby

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"It’s a conversational novel, roving and inclusive, packed with Southern color and Northeastern grit, with rueful reflection and the contretemps of daily life that can’t be avoided even on a remote island in the Puget Sound. But—like Spooner and like Miller Packard—Dexter shies away from analyzing too closely the meaning of the events he describes, letting incident and anecdote replace allusion." Liesl Schillinger

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Dexter, who has a genius for names, often evokes Mark Twain in tone and vernacular command and his humor is palpable. But it’s his feel for family that makes this novel and his appreciation for orneriness keeps the sentimentality at bay." Carlo Wolff

Providence Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Spooner—opaque, likable, oddly self-punishing—inhabits the center of this rambunctious, tumultuous, sprawling, outrageously funny, distinctly macabre and sharply witty novel. … The design is in the details, and Dexter is so inventive with his proto-Dickensian yarns that you don’t want him ever to stop." Sam Coale

Philadelphia Inquirer 3.5 of 5 Stars
"As always, Dexter is a lapidary stylist with a keen and unsparing eye for the world. … In a sense, Spooner unfolds in three stages, the first two of which are vibrant." David Hiltbrand

Critical Summary

Spooner at first appears to be a tall tale, something crafted with Mark Twain’s humor and imaginative, adventurous spirit. But critics quickly realized, many with surprise, that the novel actually follows events in the author’s own life, though it is by no means a straightforward autobiography. Spooner and Calmer’s relationship lies at the heart of the story, which is often "blood-curdling [and] belly-laughing" (Providence Journal) and "roving and inclusive, packed with Southern color and Northeastern grit" (New York Times Book Review). But even better, the novel, despite its sometimes dark humor, is deeply felt—a sentiment that lasted long after critics turned the last page.

Also by the Author

Paris Trout (1988): Award Star National Book Award. Just after World War II, Paris Trout, a storekeeper, kills a black girl—but cannot face up to his own guilt. The murder rocks the inhabitants of a small Southern town, revealing the town’s racial and class divides.