SPOONER by Pete Dexter

Book Quote:

“The dog would not come, or sit, or answer to his name, and sometimes Calmer sat holding it in the utility room– where they kept it at night — looking it over in the same peculiar way he sometimes looked at Spooner, when he thought Spooner wasn’t watching.”

Book Review:

Review by Judi Clark (DEC 31, 2009)

Pete Dexter’s latest novel tells the tale of Warren “Spooner” Whitlow, from the moment of his calamitous birth, when he arrives “feet first and the color of eggplant, an umbilical cord looped around his neck, like a little man dropped through a gallows on the way to the world” all the way through until his casually accidental death, and all the things that happen in-between. By the time Spooner slips away from life, he has “accumulated titanium rods running down the inside of both femurs, ceramic hips, a small metal plate under his scalp, fourteen implanted teeth, three screws in his bad ankle, one screw in his good ankle, and Jesus only knew how many screws holding his elbow in place.”

Spooner isn’t merely accident prone, he seems to stick himself right where he will get hurt the most, whether it is a beehive as a kid or bar brawl as an adult. Is he self-destructive or is it that he cannot see the logical outcome of his actions? Is he just wired wrong? Or, is this what happens when your older twin brother is stillborn and Lily, your mother, insists (always with that old “edge of tragedy in her voice”) that the dead twin is the one that she loves the most? What makes Spooner do what he does? Is Spooner simply the embodiment of a life lived as anarchy?

“The man who would be Spooner’s father,” Calmer Ottosen, slips into his life when he is four-years-old. By the time Calmer leaves South Dakota to happen into Spooner’s family, he is a court-marshalled ex-Navy man who had a lot of promise until the one day all does not go according to plan (and this hilarious incident is shared with us). His downfall is his sudden desire to protect a woman, which, if we connect the dots, is about the only explanation we get as to how he comes into Lily’s life — this asthmatic, often bed-ridden woman who certainly seems to need something.

As do her two children. Spooner’s older sister by 18 months, takes to Calmer right off, and he to her, “Margaret was a conversationist in those days, full of questions, and Calmer had not gotten over the surprise of her yet, all the things she knew, the intelligence of her questions.” Margaret is very quick to hug Calmer and to take his hand, she has both an intellectual and a physical connection that Spooner never manages. In contrast, Spooner is full of challenges of a different sort, take for example, that he is bounced out of kindergarten before the school year barely begins: “Two weeks later Margaret Ward was sent home with a letter saying she was being skipped ahead to third grade, and on the same day Spooner was also sent home with a letter, the contents of which were never discussed in his presence, but after which Spooner was a kindergartner no more. “

Later, after Lily and Calmer marry, they have two more children, each more intelligent than the next, which gives Calmer a great sense of pride. Phillip, the last born, is only a year old when clearly he is “not much interested in Spooner, or what someone with Spooner’s qualifications was doing here, in a family of exceptional children.” So you get the picture. Spooner is the misfit in the family but also the one that Calmer ends up having the most emotional bond from beginning to end, bred from curiosity more than anything else. Calmer is just as fascinated with this child, Spooner, as we are.  Calmer is there when the kid (and later adult) needs him.  Essentially, this is a father son story.

I’m going to say this now before I tell you anything else: I loved reading this book. There wasn’t a sentence that I didn’t enjoy… and thus I read it very slowly, like eating a dark-chocolate-coated-chocolate ice cream bar. Tiny little bites to make it last as long as possible. In the forward of the advance reading copy, Dexter apologizes if there are any bad sentences, since the book was three years late, and “while not exactly a first draft, is further away from a finished product than most advance reader’s editions.” Overlooking a few typos, If there is a bad sentence, I couldn’t find it.

That said, it isn’t a book that is easily summed up without sounding moronic. Although, it is clearly a Pete Dexter book — he has certainly detailed some interesting characters before. Remember Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy? Or even Train, one the the main characters in his last novel? But in this novel, he steps out of a safety net of telling a “story” story, and concentrates 100% on the life of this one character and those few people (and dogs) that participated in that life. Unlike his previous novels, there is no civil rights message or historical background here. In fact, if I was reading this blind without knowing who had written it, I might have guessed John Irving. Spooner has a bit of a feel of “Garp” about him, in that mixture of humor with horror and life happens, sometimes more absurdly than it should. Perhaps it is not fair to compare Spooner to Irving’s The World According to Garp as I don’t want to misguide expectations, since Garp is more than a story of one man. But, if you try to outline Garp’s life, you can see then the challenge in explaining Spooner’s life. Whereas Garp, is only just one of a group of zany characters, Spooner remains the central focus here with Calmer as the supporting actor.

And there are other “Irving-like” techniques, such as a repetition of repeated events, each one getting worse. For example, there is a rolling car incident when Spooner is a child, again in one of Spooner’s hospital stays when he has a roommate who is the victim of his wife’s driving, and still later, there is another more horrific (and almost funny) accident involving a husband and wife, and then in the end, another significant rolling car moment. I think even the sentence structure reflects an Irving style in that a lot of it being periodic, with the point of the sentence appearing at the end.

And like Irving, Dexter uses a bit of material from his own life, including a bar brawl in which a budding boxer becomes injured for life,  enough to make some wonder if this is semi-autobiographical. Let’s hope not!  Personally, I find that kind of speculation is irrelevant to the novel.  Dexter does not claim it as such.  Let’s just keep it as interesting that Dexter uses such a personal incident so boldly. And in fact, this one incident may be the historical element that I thought was missing from the novel.

I’m still trying to figure out if Spooner is one of my favorite books for this year. You would think this would be obvious. While reading the book, I thought it was. But what kept sticking in my craw was that fact that one of our reviewers, gave the book only two-stars on Amazon.com pointing out the many flaws and inconsistencies in this long novel, and mainly that it just didn’t grab her. I guess I’m a more forgiving reader. As I say, from the first page I fell in love with reading the book.

Still, I was unnerved enough in the disparity between Bonnie’s review of the book and my own that I decided to read this year’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, because it too earns its title from the main character in the book, and well, I needed to reset my palate after all that “chocolate” reading.

I concur Olive Kitteridge is a very good book and clearly a top pick for the year. In Olive, the author accomplishes telling us about the main character in a series of interconnected short stories; sometimes we learn about the character indirectly, sometimes she is merely mentioned in passing (but always powerful even if she is just walking up a set of stairs) and some stories are written from her own perspective. Overall, you get a picture of the woman and the Maine seacoast town that she lives in. Although she is unapologetically Olive throughout, in the end, she does soften, her character experiences growth. Clearly, a better structured book all the way around.

Still, when I went back to re-read Spooner (and this time the hard copy and not the advanced reading copy), I enjoyed myself all over again, right up to its end and beyond (the acknowledgements maintain the same level of humor). Surely the book has flaws, as many, or more, as Spooner himself.  The book as a whole,  Spooner, and even Calmer to a certain extent, feel unknowable, despite the 459 pages of delightful reading.  Still, should I choose this as one my top picks for 2009? Maybe. I better dive into this “chocolate” read one more time before I decide…

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 91 readers
PUBLISHER: Grand Central Publishing; First Edition (September 24, 2009)
REVIEWER: Judi Clark
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Pete Dexter
EXTRAS: Hachette Open Book Excerpt
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December 31, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, Coming-of-Age, Contemporary, Drift-of-Life, Family Matters, Humorous, Literary

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