Pete (Dexter) on Jim (Harrison)

5 Oct

As the world of storytelling and literature currently stand—small but steady trickles in the great shit stream of info-tain-advertorial, we must take our gems from whatever dark places they shine. In today’s instance, the New York Times Book Review is to be applauded for departing from its well-worn path of siccing/assigning dyspeptic and petulant authors to review their peers and betters—and we are presented with the delightful occasion of Pete Dexter musing on Jim Harrison and his new opus.

A pleasure that could only be equaled by Harrison meditating on Dexter. Or Thomas McGuane reflecting on one or the other or both. Or the publication of the 30 something year correspondence between Harrison and McGuane. But I digress.

Though a National Book Award (Paris Trout), Pete Dexter who has continued to gladden readers with a string of audacious and rip roaringly amusing novels (and some quality screenwriting, the screenplay for an excellent iteration of Paris Trout and Lee Takahara’s Mullholland Falls) is not a literary household word commensurate with his worthy oeuvre. Not the least his 2003 novel Train, set that rivals Walter Moseley and James Elroy in capturing with a cinematic verisimilitude (the Barry Levinson film adaptation of Train,sadly, was never turned around) the tone and color early 50s LA.

His last opus Spooner (Grand Central) ought to have come with a label warning of the risk of laughter induced fits of incontinence

Carol See writes:

… Dexter takes a look at himself, implicitly admitting that he’s a little on the high-strung side, to put it mildly. He attempts — if I read him correctly — to answer the question: What makes a person turn out to be like Pete Dexter? It’s a hard question for a person trained as a journalist who’s used to looking outward, or for a man of action who prefers boxing to many other pastimes. How do you look inside and come up with an answer that makes sense? (The project must have been hard. The author writes that the book went 3 1/2 years beyond its publication deadline. “When you come across sentences you particularly don’t like, keep in mind that I probably didn’t like them either.”

Nevertheless, here’s a novel that’s different from anything Dexter has written before. His namesake, Spooner, born in 1956, comes second in a cluster of four siblings. His mother is a martyr whose family lost its fortune in the Great Depression, and his father died too young for Spooner to know him. Most of the first 50 pages are given over to describing the back story of a paragon — the saintly man who became Spooner’s stepfather — who makes a hardscrabble living for his new family as a teacher in the hardscrabble town of Milledgeville, Ga., all the while bearing ill-concealed dismay and sometimes contempt from Spooner’s mother…

This is strange material for a man who wrote unsparingly of the grossness of smallpox in “Deadwood,” the merciless rape and destruction of a little girl in “Paris Trout” and the eating of raw flamingos in “Train.” It’s new ground and a new tone. Jocose, ironic, even cheery. (The author’s photo shows the man smiling!) Dexter seems to look at this life as something of a tall tale, and he’s right — there are sentences that don’t seem to be exactly his. The book has a Mark Twain feel to it: Of journalists, Spooner remarks: “Some of them drank too much after work and threatened to write books…”

Currently reading The Foreigners by MAxine Swann (Riverhead)

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