Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Spooner by Pete Dexter

Pete Dexter’s new novel, Spooner, takes me back to the glory days of newspapers in the Philadelphia of my youth. The morning Inquirer and The Evening Bulletin, which my father brought with him every night as he came off the 5th street trolley from downtown, were sandwiched around the afternoon Daily News for the blue collar/sports-minded crowd. Pete Dexter wrote a column for this paper before leaving journalism to write fiction. This is his seventh novel along with a book of his newspaper columns.

Although originally from Michigan, Dexter has the voice of a Philadelphian when telling stories set in The City of Brotherly Love -- which is mostly true, except for when the Eagles, Flyers, Sixers, and Phillies host out-of-town teams. I remember one incident when sports fans booed Santa Claus and pelted him with snowballs during the final Eagle’s game of the 1968 season. Dexter’s characters have that quirky, interesting, volatile, and highly recognizable aura of Philadelphia about them.

Spooner kept me turning pages. As in all his works, Dexter sprinkles funny situations and comic utterances by his characters throughout, and let’s not forget his sometimes dark humor -- especially Chapter 85. The novel also has its poignant moments, however.

Dexter tells the story of Spooner, a misfit child whose father dies when he is quite young. Spooner’s mother remarries, and the novel largely revolves around the relationship between Spooner and his step-dad.

Near the end, Dexter writes,

“Spooner, a man by now of some reputation for going his own way, who had over the years taken pretty dramatic steps to be seen that way, craved the good opinion of his stepfather more than he could ever admit, and felt the chance to find out where he stood with him slipping away.” (442)

Dexter always takes me on a tour of familiar places in Philly -- Center City, the fictional, but all too recognizable “God’s Pocket district, and even Dirty Frank’s, a legendary bar near the Inquirer/Daily News building that was a favorite hangout of reporters. The narrator sounds like a cynical, observant reporter on the trail of an interesting story.

Although he denied being autobiographical during an interview when the book came out a few of months ago, numerous incidents in Spooner’s life match Dexter’s biography -- even down to the title of one of Spooner’s novels, Deadwood. The HBO series of a couple of years ago was based on Dexter’s Deadwood.

If you have never read Dexter, start with his National Book Award winner, Paris Trout. If you love newspapers and reporting as I do, you will want to read all of his works. Five Stars

--Chiron, 5/3/10

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