MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Enough about facts - fiction sometimes gets closer to the truth than facts ever can. And novelists can make things turn out better than they did in real life. National Book Award winner Pete Dexter does just that in his new novel, called "Spooner."
Here's NPR's Lynn Neary.
LYNN NEARY: "Spooner" is the story of a wild boy who grows up to be a wild man, a man not unlike Pete Dexter who, by his own admission, was not the easiest kid.
Mr. PETE DEXTER (Author, "Spooner"): I never tortured animals or hurt animals. But outside of that, I just about did everything.
NEARY: Apart from their wildness, Spooner and Dexter share a lot of biographical details. Both 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. But the book, Dexter insists, is not a thinly disguised biography.
Mr. DEXTER: It's no way a memoir, you know? It's just a novel with a lot happier ending than the life was.
NEARY: The unhappy ending that Dexter tries to set right in his book belonged to his stepfather, who's the inspiration for the character of Calmer. The relationship between Spooner and Calmer is lovingly drawn. And Dexter says the book is a kind of homage to the man who raised him.
Mr. DEXTER: You know, if it hadn't been for him, I'd be one of those guys out on the beach, you know, about the color of a coconut - by the sun - by now. And, you know, I probably would have found marijuana, one of those guys with hair down to his behind. And the debt I owe is enormous. And I'm not sure that this started out being an homage to the guy. But once I got into the subject, it was something like that.
NEARY: In the novel, Spooner's birth is traumatic. His twin dies during childbirth, and his father dies shortly after he is born. Spooner always believed his mother loved the dead twin more. A neurotic woman who suffers from asthma, she doesn't lavish affection on her son. So when Calmer walks into his life, Spooner is almost immediately drawn to him.
TOM COLE (Reading): The man who would be Spooner's father showed up in July, toward the end of the month. He did not intrude suddenly; Spooner had no memory of a first meeting. But one day, he was simply there, dropping in most nights after supper and always with a can of olives or a sack of popcorn or a book or a Chinese finger puzzle. And then perhaps to avoid being thanked, he might read them a story from the book or make a bowl of the popcorn, white delicacies in a dishpan, he called it, or look around for something that needed to be fixed or built. He kept his tools in a box in the trunk of his car, everything exactly in its place. And before he started, he always changed into work clothes that smelled like work, hanging his clean pants and shirt on the bathroom door.
NEARY: The aptly named Calmer sees Spooner through some ridiculous and, at times, hilarious scrapes and scandals. Defying all odds, Spooner lands on the shores of adulthood in one piece, even manages to have a successful career and a happy family life. But life was not always kind to Calmer, just as it was not so kind to Dexter's real stepfather.
Mr. DEXTER: You know, it's one of things - if you could go back and do things right, you'd do it another way. Well, he's one of those guys that did everything right the first time, and at the end of that, there's an awful lot of disappointment. So maybe this was a little bit about - just sort of showing that this kind of a person existed.
NEARY: He and Spooner, they had a lovely relationship at the end of this book, and you do feel like Calmer is pretty much at peace with his life. He seems in a pretty good place about his life, a better place than I think a lot of people would be.
Mr. DEXTER: That's - once again, that's the novel. In real life, he died when he was 60, you know, he'd gotten fired as a superintendent of schools -or demoted way down. And his reaction to that, immediately, was to go out and get another job. I mean, he cut his salary in half, and he was going to find a way to make up for it. I mean, it was sort of part of his pride. And the day he died, he came in from teaching school, and he was going to go to a job at a warehouse, and he just laid down for a nap and died. I mean, the novel is - God, I wish that had happened. If I'd only had a chance to take care of him. I mean, all my life, I wish this had happened 10 years later - not only that he would have been 70 instead of 60, but that I would have been in a position to do something about it.
NEARY: In the novel, Spooner does take care of his stepdad as he grows older. Dexter was able to imagine the kind of relationship they might have had, and he says he enjoyed writing this book more than any other.
Mr. DEXTER: I was happier doing it than I've ever been. I had a sense the whole way through that it was better than I've been before. And I couldn't tell you exactly why, but it seemed truer, and it seemed to be getting more at the heart at things.
NEARY: Pete Dexter. His new novel, �Spooner,� is not a memoir, but it is something of an act of love. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.