A Telescopic Look at Spooner by Pete Dexter

Spooner, Pete Dexter’s latest creative nonfiction masterpiece, published in 2009, 469 pp. by Grand Central Publishing, steers away from his tradition of fundamentally exposing fundamental bigotry, misanthropy and corruption. Chronicling the minutest details of his turbulent childhood, in a series of quick-shot synapses, fractals come to saturate readers’ foreheads, like milk does an animal’s bones. Telescopically reliving the 1950’s adolescent years, after decades of their lying dormant like pretty Persian rugs, Dexter has finally opened us up to the real man behind the 1988 National Book Award. Unmasking himself of the plethora of invented heroes and heroines, wives and fathers, Dexter shows us that he is both less, yet all the more a journalist. It marks his bombastic entry into a new and less socially melancholic, poetically charged genre that he claims is ‘not a memoir’. Objective and devoted to exposing the political dissidence of the 1950’s, Dexter shifts planes in Spooner.


Instead of constructing an organized crime story, Dexter rebounds into a long, family epic, infused with personal fact, insight. “Everywhere Warren Spooner looked stories were playing out, and lives were reeling out and in, and even on the happiest, loudest nights, a quiet malignancy hung in the smoke and reminded him of family get-togethers.” He pays homage to his stepfather, Calmer and Lily, but bequeaths his mother’s passing little recognizance. An unrecorded yet miserable entry into “another world,” she gave birth to baby Spooner “feet first,” in “the color of an eggplant, as the umbilical cord looped around his neck like a bare little man dropped through the gallows.” Nevertheless, his fondness for the eighty-year old aging Calmer, on Puget Sound’s Whidbey Island, remains fully intact, a significant reverence for a stepfather. The child’s reflections are thus studded by sexuality, age and fear.


Spooner’s inane suffocation subsists throughout a lifetime. He hears “echoes of abandonment in [his mother’s] voice,” and feels scrutinized “like a mouse in those first moments in the terrarium, before it sees the snake in her gaze.” He still, however, bears an uncanny affect on women. “His own cousin’s wife once broke into tears at the sight of him on the front porch.” Women humiliate Spooner, who, born with one testicle, subsequently offers little affection to two wives.


The protagonist neither cries nor suffers much. “He was as smooth as brownie mix, never any trouble for anyone.” Colorful lenses gracefully peering into life’s cavities, Spooner’s “columns provoke a demonstration outside the paper.” Comical and observant, Spooner does not even regard the teacher, who both gives him a D-grade and ruins his year, disdainfully. Action spouts out from his fingertips, like crystals diffusing life’s spectrum of light into rainbows.


Movement is fluid, and actions supersede flowery adolescent breadth or sentimentality, as Dexter sublimates emotive residues into Spooner’s mobile curiosities. With each subsequent job and promotion, chapters trace his train trips through the U.S. He ends up maneuvering the D to a C-plus, accepts $38,000 from the Cincinnati Reds, and notes: “There were more spectators at the last game he pitched than would show up later that month for graduation.” Declared ‘grounded’ from baseball, his temperament encourages light, comical reflection: “Calmer looked at the hulking figure of Miss Sandway and punted. Some things could be fixed, some things couldn’t.”


This is not to discount Spooner’s constant injuries, broken bone, surgeries and strange, lasting fetish for mutilating snakes and pigeons. Sure he kills animals, but games, subtle mischief and naïveté in Spooner take the place of disheveled corpses, ill-bred white supremacists, and death. The grandson of the Daily News does get shot in the gizzard, and Spooner does uncover a frozen body in the backseat of an abandoned vehicle. Nevertheless, Dexter’s most recent plot abandons a forefront of crime, politics, and cold-blooded murder.


While murder, crime and civil strife encapsulate Dexter’s previous works, they fail to animate the calm reposed Warren Spooner. Grounded in suspense and propelled by mysterious and the just, Dexter’s journalistic upbringing lent him the gift for generating the most engaging, fantastic crime fiction, against a well-informed, historically refined backdrop. A young black girl is beaten and unremorsefully left for dead, amid post World War II civil strife in Paris Trout, while mangled corpses and atomic soldiers endanger the lives of L.A.’s most elite crime investigators in Mulholland Hills. Deadwood, Paperboy, Brotherly Love and God’s Pocket too revolve around the corrupt southern politics, crime, murder and deceit.


Dexter conceals his irreverence for pain and darkness, beneath an entourage of sport. Unlike D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf, who relinquish the mundane, in pursuit for higher consciousness, he safely represses his alter ego. He steers away from exposing vulnerability. D.H. Lawrence wrote The Rainbow, which powerfully extricates light and love from lusty young nymphs. Demonstratively sardonic, reckless and derisive, Lawrence unpeels the layers of the Gargoyle to compel, charm, and mesmerize. Driving a bullet into the recesses of human desires, ‘rainbows’ sprout out from the cracks present in every imperfect façade. Dexter, on the other hand, stimulates profound inquiry, through various disguises and masks. Accepting sensitivity, Spooner, his alter ego relives the material realities, constructing various challenges. He anticipates pursuit and shies away from philosophically probing into his childhood desires. Juxtaposing the modernists with Spooner, an alleged post-modernist or late capitalist, heretofore evokes profound query: Do memoirs dehydrate plot lines? Are they mere self-serving channels by which an author flagrantly tantalizes the past, or creative alternatives to lethargy, or dream?


Spooner sees the world through his aunts, uncles and elders. It is that very scheme, on which he comments, this later period of his life. Calmer funnels the boy’s subdued fascination with adventure, memory. Admiring his protectorate, Calmer’s poise, upon seeing him for the first time, Spooner reflects: “He looked comfortable even with his back pressed into the edge of the bleachers using his knees to hold his notepad while he wrote.” Furthermore, with time he’d come to realize that he’d had “a tolerance for incompetence of all kinds, which was clearly tied to ambition.” Acknowledging positive features all around him, Spooner is overall generally drawn to the good, the respectable and dignified.


The story migrates west and takes rest on islands where the tribulations of love, grief, and disease continue to anatomize Dexter’s telltale. He zooms in on trivial anecdotes that chronicle the middle-aged man he has become. Telescopically reversing into mind’s time capsules, Dexter delves into deep concaves. He’s written this memoir, to surreally glimpse into his childhood adolescence. An indulgent yet highly calculated endeavor, Spooner epitomizes the author’s substantial former self that would have been reduced to mere skeleton.


Book review: By Farrah Sarafa

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