Book review

Colored by farce, exalted by characters

By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / November 11, 2009

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Pete Dexter’s latest novel, the strange, hilarious, alarming “Spooner,’’ whips and whirls through the United States and the second half of the 20th century. As grounded in history as E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime’’ and as wildly inventive as John Irving’s “The World According to Garp,’’ it narrates the tragical and comical life of one Warren Whitlowe Spooner, whose misadventures begin in the womb and tumble on for nearly 500 pages, of which perhaps 11 are a little slow.

Spooner is born in 1953 into a grieving, enervated family in the aggrieved, enervated South; Milledgeville, Ga., to be precise (where Pete Dexter grew up). Fatherless, hapless, vague, preternaturally accident-prone, and dangerous to know, young Spooner (whose doctor “was of the opinion that [he] would not live to see his majority’’) lives with his ailing mother, Lily, and precocious sister, Margaret, in a house “full of dust, and secrets, and rules,’’ the last of which he manages to break with an almost manic inadvertence.

Alongside Spooner’s youthful disasters, Dexter tells the story of Calmer Ottosson, a quiet, competent, ethical Navy commander, who, after a VIP’s burial at sea goes terribly and comically wrong, is court-martialed. Calmer eventually finds himself “back out in the world, picking his way from town to town in a 1949 Ford sedan, from the prairie into the midwestern states, then the South, headed for Georgia and in no hurry whatsoever to arrive.’’

Having arrived, Calmer enters the Spooner household and begins to woo Lily with a host of home improvements. “He opened doors and carried groceries and painted most of the inside of the house. He fixed every leak in the plumbing, every leak on the roof. He took a loose tooth out of Margaret’s mouth and read the poems she wrote.’’

Calmer, who has come to Milledgeville to teach in the local high school, wins over the family, and finds in short order that the valetudinarian Lily is the least of his new caretaking responsibilities. It is the youngest Spooner who turns out to be his lifelong challenge. Exactly what is wrong with Warren remains something of a mystery: a needy, angry, deep-feeling boy who has little talent for dissembling. Even Calmer, with his “innate sense of how things were put together and the way one part affected another,’’ is at a loss when it comes to the mysterious workings of his new stepson. But he remains as faithful as the boy’s mother.

In a miraculously successful adulthood (he, like Dexter, becomes a newspaperman in Philadelphia and, after a bad first marriage, finds a sympathetic mate), Spooner continues to come close to killing himself every other chapter or so, a tendency that culminates in a couple of horrific beatings at the hands (and bats and tire irons) of the toughest guys in Philly in a neighborhood called Devil’s Pocket. Soon after, when Spooner finds himself in the hospital with almost as much metal in his body as RoboCop, Calmer is at his bedside.

There is more, much more, in this long, episodic, delightful novel, but the core of the story remains the relationship between stepfather and stepson. The wonder of the book is that it manages to sustain a quiet emotional force in a genre that hovers on the borderline of farce. Calmer’s quiet integrity somehow survives the peculiar names, the wild, slapstick sequences, the gruesome violence of this extreme and intense novel. And even fortune’s fool, the emotionally unfinished Spooner, resolves ultimately into a three-dimensional character, a person of substance who survives long enough to care for the man responsible for that survival.

Alec Solomita is a writer living in Somerville.

SPOONER By Pete Dexter

Grand Central, 469 pp., $26.99

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