For Pete Dexter, Fiction Provides A Happy Ending

Author Pete Dexter

Pete Dexter won the National Book Award in 1988 for his novel Paris Trout. Grand Central Publishing hide caption

itoggle caption Grand Central Publishing

People who love to read novels know that sometimes fiction gets closer to the truth than facts ever can. And those who write novels know they can make things turn out the way they wish they had, instead of the way they really did.

Spooner, the new novel by National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter, tells the story of a wild boy who grows up to be a wild man — not unlike the author himself. Both Dexter and his novel's eponymous character spent part of their childhood in rural Georgia; both grew up to become newspaper columnists; both almost got themselves killed in a barroom brawl; and both were nurtured and protected by an endlessly patient stepfather.

Spooner
By Pete Dexter
Hardcover, 480 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List price: $26.99

Read An Excerpt

Still, Dexter insists that the book is not a thinly disguised biography: "It's in no way a memoir. It's just a novel with a lot happier ending than life was."

In the book, Spooner suffers a traumatic childhood; his twin dies during childbirth, and his father dies shortly after he is born. His mother, a neurotic woman who has asthma, doesn't lavish affection on her son. But thanks to a loving stepfather named Calmer, Spooner defies the odds and lands on the shores of adulthood in one piece, even managing to have a successful career and a happy family life.

Dexter says the character of Calmer is a tribute to his own stepfather, to whom he owes an "enormous" debt: "I am not sure [the novel] started out to be an homage to the guy, but once I got into the subject, it was something like that."

The author credits his stepfather for setting him on the right track:

"If it hadn't been for him, I'd be one of those guys out on the beach, about the color of a coconut by the sun by now," Dexter says. "I'd have found marijuana [and been] one of those guys with his hair down to his behind."

In the novel, Spooner takes care of Calmer as his stepdad grows older, but in real life, Dexter wasn't able to provide for his own stepfather.

"In real life, [my stepfather] died at 60. He got fired as superintendent of schools, he was demoted way down. ... And the day he died, he came in from teaching school, and he was gonna go to a job at a warehouse, and he lay down to take a nap, and he died," says Dexter. "If I'd only had a chance to take care of him."

Writing about Spooner and Calmer allowed Dexter to imagine the kind of relationship he may have had with his own stepfather if only he had lived longer. And, he says, he enjoyed writing this book more than any other:

"I was happier doing it than I've ever been," says Dexter. "I couldn't tell you why, but it seemed truer, and I seemed to be getting more at the heart of things."

Excerpt: 'Spooner'

Cover of 'Spooner' by Pete Dexter
Grand Central Publishing
Spooner
By Pete Dexter
Hardcover, 480 pages
Grand Central Publishing
List Price: $26.99

Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a makeshift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Woods, across the street from and approximately in the crosshairs of a cluster of Confederate artillery pieces guarding the dog-spotted front lawn of the Greene Street Sons of the Confederacy Retirement Home. It was the first Saturday of December 1956, and the old folks' home was on fire.

The birthing itself lacked cotton-picking, and grits, and darkies to do all the work, but otherwise had the history of the South stamped all over it—misery, besiegement, injustice, smoke enough to sting the eyes (although this was as invisible as the rest of it in the night air), along with an eerie faint keening in the distance and the aroma of singed hair. Unless that was in fact somebody burning grits.

As we pick it up, though, three days preceding, the retired veterans are snug in their beds, and Spooner is on the clock but fixing to evacuate the premises no time soon. Minutes pool slowly into hours, and hours into a day, and then spill over into a new day and another.

And now a resident of the home dozes off with a half-smoked Lucky in his mouth, which falls into his beard, unwashed since D-day or so and as flammable as a two-month old Christmas tree, and it all goes up at once.

While back in Dr. Woods's office, Spooner is still holding on like an abscessed tooth, defying all the laws of the female apparatus and common sense—not that those two spheres are much overlapped in the experience of the doctor, who is vaguely in charge of this drama and known locally as something of a droll southern wit. But by now Dr. Woods, like everyone else, is exhausted as well as terrified of Spooner's mother Lily, and no droll southern wittage has rolled off his tongue in a long, long time.

It's a stalemate, then, the first of thousands Spooner will negotiate with the outside world, yet even as visions of stillborn livestock and dead mares percolate like a growling stomach through the tiny band of spectators, and Dr. Woods discreetly leaves the room to refortify from the locked middle drawer of his office desk, and Lily's sisters, who, sniffing tragedy, have assembled from as far off as Omaha, Nebraska, but are at this moment huddled together at the hallway window to have a smoke and watch for jumpers across the street, Spooner's mother rolls out of bed on her own and gains her feet, and in those first vertical moments, with one of her hands clutching a visitor's chair for balance and the other covering her mouth against the possibility of unpleasant morning breath, she issues Spooner, feet first and the color of an eggplant, the umbilical cord looped around his neck, like a bare little man dropped through a gallows on the way to the next world.

*

As it happened, Spooner was second out the door that morning, a few moments behind his better-looking fraternal twin, Clifford, who, in the way these things often worked out for Spooner's mother, arrived dead yet precious as life itself, and in the years of visitation ahead was a comfort to her in a way that none of the others (one before Spooner and two further down the line) could ever be.

And was forever, secretly, the favorite child.

From Spooner by Pete Dexter. Copyright (c) 2009 by Pete Dexter. Published by Grand Central Publishing. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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