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SPOONER by Pete Dexter


by Pete Dexter

Pub Date: Sept. 24th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-446-54072-8
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

From Dexter (Train, 2003, etc.), a rambling, improvisatory narrative of a not-terribly-compelling life.

Warren Spooner arrives in unpromising circumstances, after his mother labored for 53 hours and his “better-looking” twin brother was born dead. On the very same day (Dec. 6, 1956), Congressman Rudolph Toebox coincidentally and conveniently dies, leading to an embarrassing sendoff at sea when his coffin refuses to sink. The two stories cross briefly because the commander in charge of the abortive burial at sea is Calmer Ottosson, who eventually becomes Spooner’s stepfather. Throughout the novel, Dexter traces the many stages of Spooner’s development. For example, he has to deal with his much more talented step-siblings, like prodigy Darrow (named after the lawyer), who learns both to read and to play chess while practically in the womb. In contrast, Spooner’s talent, such as it is, is to piss in people’s shoes and to confound the deputy with this anonymous crime. Spooner becomes an indifferent student but, unaccountably, a talented baseball player—until his promise crashes with an injury to his elbow. He then becomes a reporter, again with mixed results. Along the way we witness the uneasy relationship between Calmer, who becomes a teacher when mustered out of the Navy—and later has to investigate a scandal involving remedial students in his school system scoring at the 97th and 98th percentiles on standardized tests—and his stepson, who never experiences much success in anything. Dexter’s technique is to roam around his narrative at a leisurely pace, multiplying incidents until the episodic ultimately devolves into the disorganized. And his ham-fisted comic approach involves such hilarity as the aforementioned shoe-pissing and constantly nudging the reader in the ribs in delight at his own cleverness, coining names such as Dr. C. Elmer Cowhurl and the aforementioned Toebox.

Ultimately, and lamentably, we wind up not caring about Spooner’s fate.