Sunday, October 25, 2009


On Thursday, I finally finished Pete Dexter's brand new novel, Spooner. It took me a long time (2 weeks for only 459 pages) to finish, but it was worth all the time I spent with it. This is the first book by Dexter I've ever read, and I think I might have to go and check out the rest of his work now, too. Because Spooner is good at everything that makes a novel a great read: funny, sad, well-written, and filled with wonderful, memorable characters. The book centers around the relationship between the titular Warren Spooner, who begins the novel as an injury-prone, mischief-loving little mishap of a child and ends it as a successful adult who takes care of those around him, and Spooner's stepfather, the super-patient and hardworking Calmer Ottosson. Dexter does an absolutely fantastic job at exploring all the complexities of love and family.

The set-up sounds a little sentimental, but the book is anything but. In fact, it's downright bittersweet in even its lightest moments. The story is all about being human, trying (and failing) to understand the people we want to love. From the very beginning of their time together, Calmer cannot understand Spooner. Dexter lets us readers see both the sad desire for attention Spooner craves as a child and the inevitable frustration and confusion Calmer feels towards the strange creature.

Calmer begins the novel as an upright Navy officer with the world at his fingertips, only to have an almost-funny accident derail his career. He ends up working in the South, marrying Spooner's unhappy mother and becoming a default father. He obviously cares about Spooner and wants to love him, but Spooner makes it extremely difficult. Meanwhile, as Spooner tries to find his way in the world, he often fails miserably, usually getting maimed in the process. He wants to make Calmer happy, but he seems incapable of doing right by the man despite his good intentions. Dexter details this bumpy connection between the two with sentences that somehow manage to be both incredibly funny and incredibly heartbreaking at once. I honestly don't know how Dexter manages to do it, creating a world where we readers can laugh and cry in reaction to a single line. The prose in this book, particularly in the first half, is really something special.

As the book continues, things begin to flip for Spooner and Calmer. Spooner eventually finds happiness and family, and Calmer meets mostly with disappointment and loneliness. In the final chapters, as Spooner cares for the aging Calmer, he gets the chance to show his stepfather just what his love really meant (Spooner thinks of Calmer as "the greatest man he'd ever known, or at least the greatest man who had ever known him"). The ending refuses to nicely tie everything together with a hug and kiss, but it also manages to be an extremely cathartic dissertation on what it means to be connected to a person you can only understand through your own eyes. For Calmer, it means trying to love Spooner despite not fully "getting" him. And for Spooner, it means showing you care in the limited ways you can manage.

The whole book is a joy to read, and it's something I would definitely recommend to anyone who is interested in literature tracing entire lives and relationships.

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