As Spooner reaches its deeply moving conclusion, it feels like nothing less than Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, recontextualized for the small towns of the South and Midwest. The title character is the odd man out in a family of geniuses, a born hellraiser who causes his stepfather, the placidly unknowable Calmer, no small amount of grief. The relationship between the two takes up most of the book, though author Pete Dexter takes his time detailing how Spooner (somewhat improbably) goes from baseball player to newspaper columnist and stumbles into a relatively happy life, even as Calmer’s is falling apart.
Spooner is a magnificently written book. Dexter’s fine eye for tiny details and the ways feelings can accumulate into a larger ball of depression or joy is ever-present; even his weaker episodes at least evoke laughs. Dexter is also good at dropping in details that prompt his characters to deeply felt emotions, which even they can’t completely express, as when Spooner reflects on the fate of a dog he once loved long ago. It’s also fitting that Calmer and Spooner, the two point-of-view characters, spend so much time trying to understand the other people in their lives, but never getting a grasp on them. After all, neither man knows himself all that well.
But Spooner isn’t wholly successful, due to its structure. While it’s obviously intended as a fully functional novel, it feels more like a collection of eight short stories that run the range from small-town picaresque to tales of modern alienation in the big city. Dexter’s sense of place in all of these stories is impeccable—his Georgia, his South Dakota, and his Philadelphia all feel like they simultaneously do and don’t occupy the same country—but his sense of his characters often feels as though he’s keeping something from the audience.
Put simply, the characters in Spooner make fairly drastic changes to their selves and lives, but the book never properly elucidates how they got from point A to point B. Instead, it focuses narrowly on the eight vignettes Dexter sets up as indicative of their characters. This gives a vague sense that these are the same people from earlier in the novel, but as lovely as his writing is, Dexter never fully rises to the challenge of filling in the gaps between stories.
But while Spooner has faults as a novel, it’s nearly perfect as a short-story collection following the same characters through their long, varied lives. Calmer and Spooner—all eight versions of them—are fascinatingly realized human beings, and their adventures are wide-ranging in tone and structure. By the end, it feels as if they’re simultaneously about as well-drawn as literary characters can be, and frustratingly unknowable. That’s apropos for a novel that spends so much time being frustrated by how hard it is to get into anyone’s head.