In terms of literary significance, Milledgeville, Ga., has but one claim to fame. Flannery O’Connor, the oft-misunderstood master of short, gothic Southern lit, lived the last half of her brief life there, writing her stories in solitude at a farm a few miles north of town. The town, which counted less than 20,000 residents at the 2000 census, is all but synonymous with her name. So when Warren Spooner, the protagonist of Pete Dexter’s new book, Spooner, is born in Milledgeville in 1956, just a year after O’Connor published A Good Man Is Hard to Find, the significance is hard to ignore. Like the Christ-haunted South of O'Connor's work, Spooner is woven into a world of comic tension and life-altering violence. Salvation, on the other hand, is suspiciously absent.
Spooner isn’t just born, he arrives after 53 hours of labor with a stillborn twin brother and “the umbilical cord looped around his neck, like a bare little man dropped through the gallows on the way to the next world.” The attending doctor, who loses his cool and starts drinking during the marathon delivery, drunkenly repeats himself saying, “Sometimes with twins, they isn’t either one of them that wants to come out first.”
This first mention of death is by no means the last, but as the body count in Spooner rises, so do the laughs. The dignified burial of a 360-pound congressman, for example, rapidly devolves into a comedy of errors ending with a machine gunner firing at the floating casket. Like a country singer/songwriter who tells corny jokes between sad songs as a way to lift the mood, Dexter works this tale with a honky-tonk beat, rambling down a road of violence and sadness while laughing the entire way.
Spooner feels like Dexter’s crack at an autobiography, minus the burden of facts. Dexter wasn’t born in Milledgeville, but he did move there as a child. The book traces the frame of Dexter's life — his newspaper work in Philadelphia, a career-ending bar brawl, and eventual migration to the Pacific Northwest — but stops short at becoming a memoir. Dexter's turned his real life into a tall tale and we should thank him for it: Spooner is a fantastic argument against the truth.
Spooner by Pete Dexter. Grand Central Publishing. $26.99. 469 pp.