'Spooner': Life lessons from a stepfather
Whidbey Islander Pete Dexter's novel "Spooner" is a semi-autobiographical tale of a tormented young man whose stepfather provides emotional ballast for his stepson's tumultuous life.
Special to The Seattle Times
by Pete Dexter
Grand Central Publishing, 466 pp., $26.99
In the past decade or so, the memoir has become both a popular form of storytelling, and a suspect one. It turns out that truth is not always stranger than fiction; sometimes it's boring. This has tempted more than a few writers to stretch poetic license into outright lying.
Pete Dexter takes a different tack. In "Spooner," his eighth and latest novel, in bookstores Thursday . The Whidbey Island writer borrows a huge chunk of his own story and calls it fiction. Now the tables — and the questions — are flipped: Instead of wondering whether the story is a made-up version of the author's life, you see the parallels and wonder how much the novel reflects his own emotional and psychological reality. Was his mother really that bad, and his stepfather that good?
It shouldn't matter, but it does, because the title character feels far less successful than Pete Dexter, a novelist who has won the National Book Award (for "Paris Trout"). Spooner, his fictional alter-ego, is a loser of the Richard Ford or David Foster Wallace tribe of characters — a kid so down on himself that he sits in an anthill, an act of attempted self-annihilation that sums up his attitude toward life and his own self-worth.
During his high school years in Park Forest, Ill., he cuts his pictures out of his yearbook — the one featuring his older sister, Margaret, as homecoming queen — to obliterate the evidence that he'd been there. As an adult, Spooner "tried optimism himself for about an hour one morning," Dexter writes, "and it had exhausted him."
With Spooner, the problem could be traced to a mood disorder, an indifferent mother, or both. Lily, his mom, is so preoccupied with her own pain (death of a husband, death of Spooner's twin, lack of money to add a room to the house) that she's oblivious to her oldest son. Salvation lies with his stepfather, Calmer, and it is the power of their relationship that brackets this book.
Calmer — an odd but fitting name for the one person who remains the single loyal presence in Spooner's life — was court-martialed out of a promising Navy career for the slightest of reasons. So even though he's as deliberate and principled as his stepson is impulsive and duplicitous, he appreciates how easy it is to fail.
This and the shared burden of living with Lily make him Spooner's natural ally, even though the kid is a parent's nightmare: as a young boy, he starts sneaking into the neighbor's house to urinate in his shoes. In his teens, even his natural talent as a baseball player can't compensate for his bad attitude and grades.
After a shattered arm ends his professional prospects, Spooner drifts into newspaper journalism — a catch-all for losers, if you buy Dexter's version. He's promoted in spite of himself and becomes a columnist, which leads him into a barroom brawl (shades of the anthill) that he barely survives.
All the while, Calmer remains steadfast in the face of his stepson's self-destructive behavior. "Moderation, man," he tells Spooner. "Men of our ilk, we have to practice moderation."
"Spooner" is a deceptively loose and blowsy novel that could jump the rails if not for Dexter's skill and ability to turn a phrase. This guy can write, and with droll humor, whether he's setting a scene ("Nothing grew along side of the road that did not have thorns or stickers") or sizing up a situation (he describes a Congressman as "exactly as irreplaceable as the laces in your shoes.").
The story ebbs and flows but always returns to the quiet chemistry between a boy who becomes a man and the only real parent he ever had. "Spooner" is an homage to Calmer, and in the end it doesn't matter whether he's real or imagined. The little glimmer of light that shines through this novel emanates from the idea of one man who has every reason to push his stepson away and, instead, sees a person worth loving.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."
Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.