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'Spooner' by Pete Dexter

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When it came to the subject of biographies, Sigmund Freud was at his most implacable: "Whoever undertakes to write a biography," he said, "binds himself to lying, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flummery and even to hiding his own lack of understanding. . . . Truth is not accessible; mankind does not deserve it, and wasn't Prince Hamlet right when he asked who could escape a whipping if he had his deserts?"

How did Freud feel about autobiographies? Don't ask.

In his latest book, newspaper columnist turned novelist turned screenwriter Pete Dexter has taken the literary-psychoanalytic bull by the horns and -- with characteristic and stylish aplomb -- blown smoke in its formidable face. His new novel, "Spooner," essentially is an autobiographical roman à clef -- not really true, except in its major incidents; not quite wholly fictional, except, of course, where it is. It's a book that probably will perplex -- and then delight -- Dexter's longtime fans, since it really is a memoir thinly disguised as a novel, and, as such, it's a lot like his life: a big, sprawling mess of a book that's nonetheless nearly always entertaining and, in significant parts, genuinely touching.

It's also a wonderful reminder that Dexter's journalistic eye for the tellingly instructive detail, particularly as it evokes character, still is second to none and that he remains a leading practitioner of what might be called comic realism, a peculiarly American genre that inhabits the fertile ground between intellectualized absurdity and broad farce. Comic realism also disdains the convenient hallucinatory conceits of its magical cousin from south of the Rio Grande.

It's a style that relies instead on calculated exaggeration, and, to make it work, you need to know just which detail to amplify and embroider, and -- as Dexter so naturally does -- just where to stop, at least within a scene.

That brings up a point Dexter himself has raised. It's been a long time between his novels, and as the 66-year-old author explains in an unusual personal note that accompanies the early copies sent to reviewers, "Spooner" was four years in the writing and editing.

Originally, he says, it was more than 700 pages long: "God knows how many of my greatest admirers have died while I've been diddling around with this thing -- and so you can understand, perhaps, that in the end somebody had to put his/her foot down and say enough, and in the end somebody did. Be assured it wasn't me. I could have kept this up for another five years. . . . "

Something more than the confessional impulse is at work here, however, since Dexter's uncharacteristic indifference to the narrative's pace allows incident, consequence, inadvertence and error to follow and compound on one another in just the way a life unplanned -- but filled with event -- naturally proceeds.

Aristotle listed "imitative form" among the rhetorical fallacies; "Spooner" turns it into a virtue.

Dexter's alter ego/protagonist is Warren Spooner. Like the author, he lost his father early in life.

His mother moves to the South and remarries -- Dexter's stepfather was a physics professor -- in this case, to a remarkable character named Calmer Ottosson. (The author's fans find his outrageously suggestive character names charming; others may find them cloying and annoying -- rather like assigning everybody in the story a stick-on name tag.)

Calmer has been drummed out of a naval officer's career for screwing up an obese congressman's burial at sea, but he is exactly the steady, accepting, undemonstrative but sturdily masculine support the young Spooner needs to rescue him from a slide into petty but nastily antisocial criminality. His unconditional affection is no less real for its lack of expression, though much of consequence to Spooner the man will flow from it.

The trajectory of Spooner's life mirrors that of Dexter's. There's a great deal of low-rent bumming around of the romantic, alcohol-soaked variety; demeaning odd jobs, starvation, the beginnings of a newspaper career in Florida and, then, success as columnist on a Philadelphia daily. A group of men unhappy with a column he'd written about their brother's death in a drug deal gone wrong beat him nearly to death.

Along the way, there are various well-loved dogs, a hilariously failed first marriage and a happy second to a woman of saintly patience.

The accounts of newspapering are dead-on and worth the price of the book. Here's Spooner/Dexter on the genesis of the column that nearly cost him his life: "Spooner wrote the column as if the kid mattered to him, and he didn't. The truth was that he couldn't picture the dead boy, and picturing him was the ground-floor requisite for this sort of newspaper column. Without it the column came out of Spooner's typewriter as dead as the boy himself, as ordinary as a box of cereal. There were two things Spooner absolutely knew about writing, and the first one was that you can't get away with pretending to care. The other one, if you're interested, is that nobody wants to hear what you dreamed about last night."

Again and again, though, Spooner's life veers to reengage with Calmer, his emotional touchstone, despite the fact that he can be described only as existentially accident prone. Ineffectual and unfailingly decent turn out not to be mutually exclusive here.

It gives nothing away to report that Spooner's story ends where it fundamentally began in his oddly sustaining, improbably life-dictating relationship with Calmer. A disastrously black comedic attempt to spread his dead stepfather's ashes in the cold waters of Puget Sound leaves Spooner in the sea awaiting rescue as the cremated remains float tantalizingly nearby -- "and for a little while you might say they were right back where they started, he and Calmer, and where they had always been, which is to say, just out of reach."

Dexter concluded his award-winning 1995 novel, "The Paperboy," with a memorable last line: "There are no intact men."

From this writer's singular perspective, "Spooner" riotously -- and most tenderly -- explains why.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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