Archive for November, 2009

Life imitating art imitating life, etc.

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Here’s a review I did of Pete Dexter’s novel Spooner about a year ago. The paperback edition has recently been published. If you missed the hardcover, get the paperback. Any thing Pete Dexter writes is worth reading. And believe me, Spooner is a trip you’ll be glad you’ve taken.

Spooner, the most recent novel from Pete Dexter, is about life. Okay, I know what you’re saying, all novels are about life in one way or another. But Spooner is so full of life that it may well redefine what most readers think, when they think about novels about life. If that doesn’t seem to make sense, keep in mind that life often doesn’t make sense either. The author freely admits that a number of incidents in his life are used as jumping-off points for this novel’s collected incidents. If you’re a reader of Dexter’s work, you, like me, will realize that before he tells you so in the acknowledgements at the end of the book. But believe me, it doesn’t make any difference one way or the other. You’ll be enthralled with Spooner.

On the surface, its a story about one boy’s lifelong quest to understand and appreciate his stepfather. And perhaps more importantly, to be understood and appreciated by him. From a rural upbringing in the South to a suburban adolescence in the midwest to young adulthood in Philadelphia to middle-age and beyond in the Northwest, its a story that, like life, winds its way slowly and meanderingly through family ties from which none of us are immune.

Dexter’s easy way with words (easy to read, not to write) convince you that he’s in the room spinning his yarn with a pitch perfect down-home accent. His ability to take you from a quiet bucolic setting one moment, followed by a horrific incident the next, followed by a sense of love and warmth and understanding after that, is a high-wire walk not to be missed.

The protagonist of Spooner, a lad by the same name who seems a few cards shy of a deck, is an unpredictable bundle of trouble. He doesn’t try to be. It just seems to come naturally. His long-suffering mother, smarter sister and (eventually) smarter brothers all seem to live their lives more or less successfully, without anywhere near the mayhem that follows Spooner around like an unshakable storm cloud. Luckily, Spooner has Calmer, a stepfather on which all male parents should be modeled after. Not perfect to be sure. As in life, none of us are. But the kind of rock even the stormiest sea can’t seem to shake. Through each phase of his life, Spooner seems to find a unique way to screw up. And Calmer is always there, whether physically present or not, to help set Spooner straight and get him back on whatever bizarre path he’s set for himself.

It would be buzz-killing to go into any detail about the many wondrous things that happen to Spooner, and for that matter, Calmer, in Dexter’s 459 pages. It is in fact, a bit like a slow high turning page after page and being surprised, shocked, saddened, brought to tears in one chapter and giggling like a schoolgirl in others. The wonder of Pete Dexter’s mind, his eye for detail and insight into the workings of the human heart are about as pleasurable as reading can possibly be.

No one turns a phrase quite as surgically as Dexter. Charming one moment, jarring as a left hook the next. And no one else could have lived the life (even though it’s fiction of course) or written so lovingly about it, as Pete Dexter does in Spooner. Get it. Read it. Don’t worry about how long it takes. It’s the kind of treat you can put down and come back to again and again and still get the feeling you’re tasting it for the first time. The Fiction Fortune Hunter recommends anything you can find by this exceptional novelist. I plan to keep reading him until he quits writing. Lets hope that won’t be for a long, long time.

It’s a Greene world after all

Monday, November 2nd, 2009

This post is in praise of Graham Greene. Many consider him the foremost novelist of the 20th century. They are probably correct. His literate, insightful “entertainments”, as he often referred to them, present snapshots of the world circa 1930 to 1990. Many of Greene’s most memorable novels take place in what has often been described at Greeneland, some backwater in a third world country filled with deceit, treachery, lost love and/or lost illusions.

A listing of his more popular novels reads like a panoply of the last century. The Heart Of The Matter (Africa), The Ugly American (Southeast Asia), The Comedians (Haiti), The Power And The Glory (Mexico) The Burnt Out Case (Congo) The Human Factor and The End of The Affair (London). Our Man In Havana (Cuba). These are only some parts of the world that Greene passed through and chronicled in fiction ranging from nobility to cowardice to most of the other behaviors in between. His screen story of The Third Man (Vienna) still stands as one of the most beloved movies of the postwar period. That war being WW II.

Green could write pulp with the best of them. The famous Alan Ladd vehicle This Gun For Hire was based on a Graham Green novel. He was no stranger to satire and comedy, Monsignor Quixote, though his much of his power had left him by the time of that penning. And certainly intrigue was always part of the equation in novels like The Honorary Consul and The Human Factor.

But Green was at his best when wrestling with the inner demons that plagued men’s souls at the same time they were having to deal with love, lust, boredom, honor, bravery and the complex nature of humanity itself.

Born and raised in England he came to personify the aristocratic British type. All silver tongue, poison pen and pitch perfect diction. He didn’t care too much for America or Americans. The rise of the USA seemed to parallel the decline of the British Empire and while he viewed the latter with seemingly detached indifference, one can’t help but wonder if the countries change in fortunes skewed his view of the former’s ascendency.

Rapier wit, an incredible ear for dry, droll dialogue and a relentless honesty regarding guilt and all its attendant emotions enabled him to cut to the bone with his prose and his stories of all too human beings in all too inhuman circumstances.

Some bookstores still have Graham Greene sections, though not enough. Regardless of whether he was writing in the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s 60’s 70’s or 80’s, his stories are as involving and illuminating today as any thing you’re likely to read from this century.

Make a point of becoming acquainted with Graham Greene and his marvelous novels, if you’re not already. If you are, I need not encourage you to revisit them from time to time. The Fiction Fortune hunter certainly does, and always to my benefit.

For an exceedingly thorough and engaging biography of Graham Greene, read The Enemy Within by Michael Shelden. It frequently reads like one of Greene’s “entertainments.”