Last Friday night, Emma and I talked to Pete Hamill before a showing of Fat City at the Film Forum. I asked him about Pete Dexter (Hamill wrote the introduction to Paper Trails, a collection of Dexter’s columns and magazine articles). He said he’d gotten a copy of Spooner, Dexter’s eighth novel, but had not read it yet. Hamill told us that he’s got a couple of months left on a novel of his own and that it is his policy not to read anything by someone as good as Dexter while he’s writing.
Hamill’s story made me feel better about myself because a month ago, when I was working a story for SI.com, I picked up Dexter’s novel, Train, and read the first three pages. I put it down not knowing whether to be inspired or depressed. Of course it is crazy for a young writer like me to compare myself with a master like Dexter, but Hamill’s point is well taken–he only reads translations while he’s writing and will save the likes of Dexter for when he’s finished.
When I handed my SI piece in, I landed a copy of Spooner. And I didn’t feel intimidated. I felt elated.
I rarely read fiction. I did read novels in high school and college–I remember my dad hipping me to John O’Hara. I read Brideshead Revisited to impress a teacher who refused to be impressed with me. I went through a Faulkner phase, a Graham Greene period, and I became familiar with writers and their place in history. But I haven’t been drawn to short stories or novels for the past fifteen years.
Lately, though, as I talk to writers about writing, novelists keep coming up, so I’ve made some attempts to get back into fiction. I started but did not finish five novels this summer. I forced my way through Fat City, which was not pleasurable even if I was happy that I did it. Recently, I spoke to a friend who has the same aversion to fiction and he said he’s just learning how to luxuriate in a novel.
Then I read Spooner, and I was entranced. I read it on the subway to work, walking down the street, waiting in line for lunch, and standing in the shower. In some ways, it felt like the first novel I’d ever read because I couldn’t help but look at it for the plumbing–the technique–as much as I did for the story.
I made many small discoveries for myself–how to transition from one time period to another, like Dexter does in Chapter 21, how to use evocative and clear images, like when Dexter describes the corpse of an obese congressman:
The congressman looked vaguely uncomfortable, his hair unmussed and perfect, decked out in a pinstriped Brooks Brothers suit which, truth be told, did him no favors, figure-wise, an effect enhanced perhaps by the fact that he was barefoot, his feet a color of blue similar to the hanging meat, and swollen well beyond the recognizable shape of human feet, as if they had been squeezed out of the pants’ legs like toothpaste.
Dexter’s voice is clear, true, and very funny. Reading the book reminded me of watching Mariano Rivera pitch. Dexter’s prose is seemingly effortless, it washes over you so smoothly, that it is easy to forget how much skill and craft are involved.
Spooner is an autobiographical novel. In the acknowledgments, Dexter writes, “The book by the way is a novel, not in any sense a memoir, but is nevertheless based loosely on the events and characters from my own life.” Spooner gets into trouble often as a kid–he pisses in a neighbor’s shoes, sits on an ant hill, almost kills the star play on his high school baseball team during practice.
He grows up to become a reporter and then a columnist, like Dexter. He works in Philadelphia were he is involved in a brutal bar fight that leaves him half-dead. The heavyweight boxer, Randall “Tex” Cobb was Dexter’s good friend. He too was involved in that fight, and Cobb is fictionalized in Spooner.
A few years ago, Steve Volk wrote a good profile on Dexter for Philadelphia Weekly:
The way Dexter explains it, the beat down he suffered is an anecdote he feels personally if not publicly free from. “If I was going over the top 100 most important experiences in my life, that night would probably be somewhere in there. But it wouldn’t make the top 25.”
His brother Tom also thinks the event’s influence has been overstated. “When you look at everything in its totality,” he says, “what happened, what he’s done and everything since then–being married for almost 30 years, raising a child, all those things in life and all the achievements, I think that night was maybe a little turn in the road, but I don’t think it was formative or transformative. Everything since then is just stuff he worked for.”
The beating and its aftermath does play a critical part in Spooner. It is the incident that effectively sobers Spooner up. In the second half of the book, he is constantly holding himself back, trying to do the mature thing (he doesn’t respond to a provocative letter from his mother, resists the temptation to assault a thoughtless neighbor). Spooner doesn’t want his true nature to destroy his family, doesn’t want to push his wife to the edge like he did when he was beaten in that bar in Philly. When he realizes how much he loves his wife and their daughter, Spooner gets scared for the first time in his life–the thought of losing them terrifies him.
This turn of events really go to me. I feel that way all the time about my wife.
The narrative is sprawling, some characters that you think might play a more important part (like Spooner’s siblings), don’t. It doesn’t feel like a perfect book, and that’s part of what I like about it. It is touching and hilarious and absurd, but it is never cheap. During some tense moments, I found myself skimming ahead just to make sure nothing horrific happened to any of the lead characters. When I was assured that there were no two-bit John Irving twists of fate, relieved, I went back and continued reading slowly again. How did my friend put it? I learned how to luxuriate in a novel.
In the end, the book is about how difficult it is for men to express their feelings of gratitude and love for each other. One time, Dexter wrote a column about sitting on an airplane next to a distraught ten-year-old boy. The kid’s mother had put him on the plane, and he was on his way to visit his grandparents. But he had forgotten to tell his mother that he loved her, and now he couldn’t stop crying. “And I knew what was pulling at him,” Dexter wrote. “The same thing pulls at me too. The worry that things have been left unclear.”
Spooner loves his step-father Calmer to no end, but is unable to tell him as much. And Calmer doesn’t give him an in. If Dexter was never able to express this to his step-father, I have no way of knowing of course, but the relationship he creates between Spooner and Calmer is a love story. The book is a love poem, a tribute to Calmer. Spooner is forever trying to find a way to draw closer to the man who showed him infinite patience and understanding.
He can’t bridge the gap. Dexter does–with empathy and grace.
He brings it all home.