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For Pete Dexter, Fiction Provides A Happy Ending

People who love to read novels know that sometimes fiction gets closer to the truth than facts ever can. And those who write novels know they can make things turn out the way they wish they had, instead of the way they really did.

Spooner, the new novel by National Book Award-winning author Pete Dexter, tells the story of a wild boy who grows up to be a wild man — not unlike the author himself. Both Dexter and his novel's eponymous character spent part of their childhood in rural Georgia; both grew up to become newspaper columnists; both almost got themselves killed in a barroom brawl; and both were nurtured and protected by an endlessly patient stepfather.

Still, Dexter insists that the book is not a thinly disguised biography: "It's in no way a memoir. It's just a novel with a lot happier ending than life was."

In the book, Spooner suffers a traumatic childhood; his twin dies during childbirth, and his father dies shortly after he is born. His mother, a neurotic woman who has asthma, doesn't lavish affection on her son. But thanks to a loving stepfather named Calmer, Spooner defies the odds and lands on the shores of adulthood in one piece, even managing to have a successful career and a happy family life.

Dexter says the character of Calmer is a tribute to his own stepfather, to whom he owes an "enormous" debt: "I am not sure [the novel] started out to be an homage to the guy, but once I got into the subject, it was something like that."

The author credits his stepfather for setting him on the right track:

"If it hadn't been for him, I'd be one of those guys out on the beach, about the color of a coconut by the sun by now," Dexter says. "I'd have found marijuana [and been] one of those guys with his hair down to his behind."

In the novel, Spooner takes care of Calmer as his stepdad grows older, but in real life, Dexter wasn't able to provide for his own stepfather.

"In real life, [my stepfather] died at 60. He got fired as superintendent of schools, he was demoted way down. ... And the day he died, he came in from teaching school, and he was gonna go to a job at a warehouse, and he lay down to take a nap, and he died," says Dexter. "If I'd only had a chance to take care of him."

Writing about Spooner and Calmer allowed Dexter to imagine the kind of relationship he may have had with his own stepfather if only he had lived longer. And, he says, he enjoyed writing this book more than any other:

"I was happier doing it than I've ever been," says Dexter. "I couldn't tell you why, but it seemed truer, and I seemed to be getting more at the heart of things."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.