In a nearly autobiographical novel, award-winning author Pete Dexter draws a loving portrait of a stepdad.
What’s the worst thing that can happen to a little boy in a book? Nah, being orphaned isn’t so terrible – how are you going to have any adventures with your parents hovering over you? But a step-parent? Now, that’s seriously bad news.
Unless of course, you are Warren Spooner. Spooner, the new novel by National Book Award winner Pete Dexter (“Paris Trout”) is proudly – almost painfully – autobiographical. And under its knockout prose and profanity-riddled exterior lies one of the most loving portraits of a stepfather in American literature.
Calmer Ottosson is the anti-Murdstone. After his outstanding Navy career is scuttled by a freak chain of events involving a Taft-sized congressman’s burial at sea, Calmer heads to Milledgeville, Ga. There, his deep-seated need to fix things soon leads him to Spooner’s widowed mom and her troubled little boy. While Calmer never understands Spooner, he never gives up on him, either. (Dexter seems to approach his main character in a similar way.)
Spooner isn’t mischievous in the traditional Tom Sawyer vein. Instead, the 5-year-old does things he can’t quite explain, such as sneak into neighbors’ homes at night and pee in their shoes, or sit on a nest of fire ants – after making sure that the ants are good and riled first. Calmer literally saves Spooner’s life during that incident, suffering dozens of stings himself as he races the boy to a tub. (Frankly, given the virulent racism in Milledgeville portrayed in the novel, Spooner may have had the right idea about those shoes.)