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Damage Assessment

By (November 1, 2009) One Comment


By Pete Dexter
Grand Central Publishing, 2009

At the center of Pete Dexter’s best novels are hard and intractable structures, like granite columns or tree trunks – these are damaged men. To Dexter, being damaged is not a condition but a trait, like one’s height. It can’t be analyzed, and it certainly can’t be corrected. Stories and other characters twine elaborately around these men, but it doesn’t matter: they can’t change, except to suddenly come crashing down when the weight on them is too great, doing damage to anything nearby. Their ends are consummations rather than arrivals – you can see them coming from page one.

This alone would be a rigid formula for a novel, but Dexter knows his story-telling geometry and complements these people with generous, sensitive characters – “good men” as it is sometimes plainly put (though these good men are occasionally women). Such characters can change, and that’s their burden, because what it generally means is that they can be destroyed. They follow the same inexorable trajectory as their heedless counterparts, but they do so with open eyes, catapulted not by compulsion but by ideas of loyalty, responsibility, or, most terribly of all, kindness.

You’ve read of the confrontation between fate and moral choice elsewhere, of course; amongst contemporary novelists, Cormac McCarthy confronts the dilemma in the most overtly allegorical and self-conscious manner. Everyone by now knows the coin-flipping murderer of No Country for Old Men, but even twenty years before that, in Blood Meridian, McCarthy was staging conversations like the following, between a soldier named Irving and a satanic figure called “the judge”:

Might does not make right, said Irving. The man that wins in some combat is not vindicated morally.

Moral law [said the judge] is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak. Historical law subverts it at every turn. A moral view can never be proven right or wrong by any ultimate test. A man falling dead in a duel is not thought thereby to be proven in error of his views.

Pete Dexter is a former journalist and his characters would no sooner opine about the workings of historical imperatives than they would speak in Ancient Greek – yet his laconic, naturalistic approach to the same ageless conflict has generated some of the most indelible confrontations in the past 25 years of American fiction. The Paperboy (1995) pins an ordinary young man between two opposite but equally unreachable poles: his older brother, a crusading journalist overtaken by the need to unearth the facts of a murder case, and the convicted murderer himself, a man of “indistinct malevolence” who does not seem to care that he’s on death row. The title character of Train (2003) is Dexter’s most sensitive creation, a young black caddie who turns out to be a golf prodigy. Train is likewise caught between two approaching disasters: he becomes solicitous of a brain-damaged former boxer who is prone to violent outbursts, and he accepts room and board from a police detective named Packard who uses Train to hustle money on the golf course. Packard is “the Mile Away Man”; like Quint in Jaws, he was on the sunken USS Indianapolis and survived the sharks for five days in the Pacific Ocean – and since then his primary pleasure in life has come from making barroom thugs want to kill him and then running for his life. He likes the thrill of betting on Train – he is soon dealing with gangsters, naturally, who feel an added mortification to losing to a black kid – but the thrill only exists because of the likelihood that it will end terribly.

And then there’s Paris Trout (1988), in which the damaged man of the title is so cruel and inscrutable that he seems to be a figure out of myth – while outwardly appearing like a plausible villain in 1940s Georgia. When Trout’s rages come over him, he is described as being only their messenger. (Similarly, a murderer in The Paperboy is thought to have acquired his malady from the outside, as though it were tuberculosis.) A 14-year-old girl named Rosie Sayers and a lawyer named Seagraves (not a good man in this case – a lawyer after all – but a thinking, conscientious one) are among those thrown in the path of this sociopathically unbending figure. The scene in which he comes to Rosie’s home and murders her (she is distantly connected to someone who owes him money) is justly renowned for the precise choreography of the stage direction. Dexter has shaved each sentence down to a blade-edge of description, and the terror of the home invasion feels at once intimate and otherworldly:

Mr. Trout stumbled behind her, he broke a piece of glass. She heard him curse as she passed into the second room. It was lighter in there, and she could see the details of the walls and floor, she could see her own feet. It seemed to her that things had slowed down.

And then she heard him behind her again. It surprised her in some way that he was still there. “What the goddamn hell does it got to do with you?” he said again. And she saw his face without turning to see it, and then his arm had gone around her throat, and he was shaking her from behind.

Defending Trout for the murder in court, Seagraves notices that Trout occupies himself by drawing cartoon ducks shooting at one another. A heartwrenching exchange takes place with one of the witnesses, essentially deciding the verdict; but not a word of it reaches the man it should affect most:

Seagraves walked back to the defense table and saw that Trout had filled the page. Ducks, mice, guns, pools of steaming blood. A woodpecker smoking a cigarette. He was beginning to draw walls and a window, to make the scene indoors.

Paris Trout, Train, and The Paperboy are great novels, and not redundantly so despite their shared themes. Dexter has taken pains in them to whittle out every gesture or observation that is not immediately necessary to depicting the starkest actions and moods of the scenes. He does not lose himself in trying to crack open the enigma of his characters. Nearly all circumlocution in novels is the result of a writer trying to figure out what he’s doing with a scene or character – it’s a mark that a book is unfinished. Not a trace of such draftwork survives in these novels. The unadorned interactions cleanly release the intrinsic tension set up by the drastic differences between the characters, and even the violence, which might merely be macabre, seems to originate from a deep and disturbing source.

With a few adaptations, the reliable counterpoint is present in Spooner, Dexter’s newest and most avowedly autobiographical novel. Warren Spooner is this book’s psychological trunk of wood. We first meet him stubbornly refusing to be born – “defying all the laws of the female apparatus and common sense” – and this same inexplicable resistance to reason defines him to the book’s final scene.

Spooner’s damage may originate in his breech birth, but that’s the extent of the diagnosis; his childhood doctor thinks of him simply and fatalistically as one of those people “who would stand in line to get struck by lightning.” He is always injuring himself and damaging things he comes near in bizarre and willful ways – at his worst, he stirs up an ant hill and sits down in it and is nearly bitten to death. Spooner feels a baffled disjunction not only from other people but from his own thought processes, and Dexter frequently captures the childish sweetness of this kind of imbecility. Here a celebration at home puts Spooner in the mind of the excitement that surrounds his uncle’s piano recitals:

For Spooner, it was like being in the audience after Uncle Arthur had polished off Tchaikovsky and everyone around him stood up and applauded and yelled Bravo!, and Spooner would stand with everyone else and clap like wild and yell Bravo! until other people in the crowd began to look at him like he’d robbed the collection plate. He enjoyed his uncle’s concerts, except for the music, and wondered sometimes what the tunes would have sounded like in English.

But having his reason at the mercy of impulse leads him more often into danger, and the early pages of the novel are occupied with Spooner’s unregenerate habit of breaking into his neighbor’s house and peeing in their refrigerator. The licenses of clan and race violence are the gateways to the havoc in Dexter’s previous books, and even this farcical pretext threatens to trigger the same end. Spooner lives in a neighborhood of Milledgeville, Georgia, the setting of Paris Trout, and his neighbor is instantly convinced that it’s the blacks from a nearby slum who are breaking in. Even months after the fact, the insult has grown in scope in the neighbor’s, Roger Durkin’s, mind:

Outrages of this sort did not diminish with use and time, of course, like tooth enamel or tire tread, and by now the story of the break-in at Mr. Durkin’s house had grown and the coloreds had violated his home not once but three times, and not just pissed on his floor but stolen his toaster, the Hoover vacuum, his wrist watch and the food right out of his ice box. Hearing this, some Vincent Heighters took to locking their doors at night and others didn’t, these being citizens who knew Roger Durkin and knew that just because he said a thing was so didn’t make it any such thing. Roger had a flair for the dramatic, especially on Friday afternoons, although no one in the neighborhood doubted that given the chance he would in fact plug one in the yard.

Spooner senses the violence he’s sowing, and feels a galvanizing sense of conquest in it – of “greatness” and even of “fame.” You realize from the currents of unreleased violence flowing beneath the absurd situation that you may be reading the origin story of another sociopath. It’s easy to imagine how this giddy compulsion to badness and goony criminality could harden into the unfathomably complacent cruelty that defines Dexter’s previous creations. There is, in other words, a traceable line from young Warren Spooner to Paris Trout.

The difference is the presence of the “good man,” Spooner’s stepfather Calmer Ottosson. Calmer was dishonorably discharged from the Navy following a freak accident during a burial at sea – Dexter loves inflicting perverse misfortunes on his intelligent and sensitive characters – and eventually moves to Milledgeville to become an underappreciated schoolteacher and to marry Spooner’s mother, a termagant who wins every argument by threatening to have an asthma attack. But Calmer’s biggest trial, and finally his consolation, is Spooner, whose misanthropy is impossible to riddle out or reform. And Calmer’s greatness is in his patience and faithfulness. Spooner is often likened to the traumatized dogs the family takes in, and he quickly comes to feel for Calmer a desperate love he’s incapable of expressing (one of Calmer’s limitations is his unwillingness to touch Spooner – “men don’t hold hands” is an early lesson Spooner learns). Calmer’s patient compassion imprints on Spooner, who comes to be more interested in harming himself than others. A wonderfully realized mixture of longing and anguished affection floods Spooner’s consciousness as Calmer saves him from the anthill – as in Dexter’s earlier books, it is only when people are harrowed by agonizing pain that they’re able to connect with one another:

He lay stunned while a thousand creatures moved over him, blood and dirt in his teeth, the ants on his lips, his cheeks, his legs. Inside his ears. He felt them differently now, as something almost liquid, a slow, scalding wash that seemed to raise him up as if he were floating in it.

And then he was in fact lifted up, and was astonished at being airborne, at the feel of cool air moving across his face.

Calmer had him in his arms and against his chest, the way he would carry firewood, and he was running. It was strange to be held like this – it was so long since he had been held – and strange to feel the power loose in Calmer, to think this was what had been inside him all the time. He could feel Calmer’s heart pounding, or perhaps hear it, and his fear, and in the next few moments, pounding for home, he knew Calmer as well as he ever would, as was as close to him as he ever would be.

A touching reversal of roles is played out at the end of Spooner – Calmer is by then old and ruined, and while Spooner is still a walking disaster, he’s able to care for his step-father, though never quite get close to him. Yet despite the rewarding exploration of this relationship, and the usual caliber of Dexter’s prose (extremely wry and deprecating this time around, and often very funny), Spooner has somewhat stymied my hope to compose an unstinting panegyric to Dexter’s perpetually underrated talents. As a whole, this novel is a misfire, perhaps the first he’s ever written. The trouble begins not quite halfway through, when in circumstances that will remind far too many readers of Forrest Gump, Spooner goes off to college – once he and Calmer are separated, the tension of the novel snaps like a wishbone.

Each proceeds to muddle on alone for two hundred pages, Calmer’s stoic kindness leading him to be continuously exploited by a corrupt school board, and Spooner’s equivocating, dunderheaded gentleness causing him to nearly get murdered a baker’s dozen times. What most nonplusses the reader is the fact that Spooner somehow makes a fairly conventional success of his life. His sub-literacy is emphasized throughout his childhood, yet without much comment we soon find him as a mainstream novelist and a celebrity columnist whose face appears on the sides of busses. He even manages to marry a seemingly sane and elegant woman, although we never know how. Spooner himself is bewildered by his CV, but because no effort is made to account for it, the scenes of his adulthood seem to have been dropped in from an entirely different book.

We know, of course, that this different book is Dexter’s autobiography, and it’s clear that when Spooner was snatched up by Grand House Publishers and sent into publication, Dexter had not yet figured out how to transfigure the episode of his later life into a coherent story. Many of these episodes are recognizable from earlier novels – elements of what Dexter has called “the most celebrated bar fight in the history of South Philadelphia” were brilliantly synthesized into God’s Pocket (1983) and The Paperboy, for instance, but here the scene feels stuck in, even recycled.

But more than that, the canny deflections of the memoirist are too readily apparent. The portrait of the adult Spooner as the baffled, backwoods novelist begins to seem more like a quaint projection of the way Dexter would like to be perceived than a sincere reckoning of himself. By the same token, Dexter does not give Spooner’s second wife a name. We can guess why: she depicts the woman Dexter is currently married to, and he clearly wanted to keep her role peripheral and spare her the messy vivisections of autobiographical study. But the novel needs Spooner’s wife to fill the role that Calmer occupied, the patient longsufferer through whose eyes we can begin to grapple with a conundrum like Spooner. Dexter seems to sense this – the wife appears so frequently that the handle “Mrs. Spooner” becomes decidedly awkward. And after the bar fight when Spooner wakes up on the operating table and “hadn’t been able to remember her name,” the sadness of the moment is lost on the reader, who never knew it to begin with.

The problem with Spooner is a damned strange one, then: Dexter hasn’t finished writing it yet. It’s no small shock to barge mid-production into the editing room of a crafter of so much exquisitely finished work and find paper and film reel strewn about the floor, ashtrays stuffed with cigarette butts, and a disheveled guy with stained clothing shrugging his shoulders at you. Dexter himself has been very funny about the arduousness of writing. He often likens it to doing pushups, and in Spooner there’s a great description of how a writer’s time tends to pass:

For the previous half hour, Spooner had been nosing back and forth over this same, bad sentence, poking here and poking there, like some sweet, old bitch trying to rouse the still puppy in her litter.

This kind of ornery editorializing is fun, but it still makes you cast back wistfully to Dexter’s other books, where no such intrusions survive because they could have only obstructed the fierce mood of the story being spun. I did rove back to these books, and found countless scenes that are so taut and sharp they remain spellbinding even in excerpt. This, for instance, from The Paperboy:

I killed the engine a few feet from land and jumped into the river to pull the boat up. The old man turned back to the alligator, putting his knife into the animal’s throat and cutting him all the way to the back of the legs.

He put his hand in then, up near the throat, and pulled it down, the viscera falling out along the line he had cut, just below the hand. When he’d finished, it did not seem possible that there was enough room inside the alligator for everything that had come out.

“Mr. Van Wetter?” my brother said.

The old man put the knife point-down in his back pocket and his hands on either side of the cut and pulled it apart. The muscles in his forearms boiled up into his skin. There was a cracking sound and I glimpsed the cavity inside.

You miss this sort of minute intensity in Spooner, but ultimately that may point up the limitations of the autobiographical novel – to write a scene like it, you’d have to know someone who guts alligators. My hope is that Dexter has shaken the memoir out of him, and can return to hurling his damaged characters together without being circumscribed by the fact that he’s a damaged man who’s somehow done pretty well.

Sam Sacks has written books reviews for the Barnes and Noble Review, The Quarterly Conversational, The New York Press, and thefanzine.com, among other places. He lives in New York City.

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