Read: “Spooner”, by Pete Dexter

Spooner, Pete Dexter’s latest novel, is not as consistent as The Paperboy, but that does not make it inferior. Spooner tells the story of a boy, Spooner, and his step-father, Calmer. Spooner is not smart, is not handsome, and is primarily talented at causing trouble for others. Pissing in the shoes of others, rolling cars down the hill, and throwing eggs at cars: these are the things Spooner is good at. Calmer, a former Navy man, is good at just about everything, and is particularly good at being patient and trying to rescue those in need of redemption. Like Spooner’s mother, Lily, who sees the world first as a personal affront to her.

Dexter uses language in a way that lets you feel the words in your mouth and taste the idiom and “flavor”; in his hands, the language of the South (Spooner begins in Georgia; The Paperboy in Florida) does not feel impersonated or propped up, but real and present. Spooner contains exposition that made me almost giddy with pleasure, re-reading paragraphs out loud on the bus, looking like a crazy person, I’m sure. For example,

There was in every sport Spooner ever played, on every team he ever joined, an outcast. Some kid who had been plucked from the safety of home and homeroom and tossed, often at the insistence of his own father, out into the world. Unprotected. Often this kid was the fattest, dopiest kid in school, someone who had been it every day of his life on the playgrounds, shunned or insulted one day, beaten up the next, and was now introduced to the rest of his life, which was more of the same except better organized, with the degree of abuse he suffered depending mostly on the mercies of the adults in charge.

I don’t know if I was exactly that kid on the team, but I could certainly pick him out a mile away, and knew enough to keep my distance.

Spooner is told in the third person, but Dexter manages to convey the mental confusion and uncertainty the characters express in a way that reminded me of Paul Auster. Characters try to look at themselves and figure out what really happened: Did they really see what they think they saw? Where was the moment things went wrong? Could they have found another way through that situation? That ability to convey the introspection, uncertainty, and inner monologue of a character gives the story a depth: coming to the end of a paragraph is like coming up from under water, and you’re not really sure where you’ve wound up.

Spooner is not perfect; one section, in particular, doesn’t feel like it “fits” with the rest. As a whole it’s a great story about two characters who care a great deal for each other, an original, expansive rendering of the father-son relationship.

date:2010-03-06 10:04:46
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tags:2009, fiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “Fordlandia”, by Greg Grandin

Fordlandia chronicles the rise and fall of eponymous rubber plantation established by Henry Ford in Brazil in 1927. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say that it would be more accurate to say, “attempted to establish”. The book is a chronicle of the money spent, initiatives undertaken, and schemes hatched, all in an effort to wring profit from the Amazon and, at least in some cases, bring better living conditions to its inhabitants.

Fordlandia is really three, interwoven stories. The surface story is about Ford’s efforts to push the limits of his autonomous, vertically integrated manufacturing by establishing a stable source of rubber in the Amazon, along the Tapajós River. Rubber was one of the few raw materials that Ford did not own or control production of, and was concerned that a British-initiated cabal could raise prices in the American market. Grandin gives the reader context in the form of Ford’s previous success with Fordism in the US, which is particularly interesting given the decline of the automobile industry of late.

Below the surface of the main story are two others: the story of the people of the Brazilian Amazon, and their exploitation during Brazil’s rubber boom and bust, and the story of Henry Ford’s personal evolution from industrialist to agriculturalist to paternalistic social engineer. As Fordlândia failed to produce rubber, it increasingly became a social experiment, attempting to export an idealized midwestern social structure to the Amazon. Ford and his managers attempted to impose what they believed to be the optimal structure — both social and corporate — on the workers. The results seem to have been directly, inversely proportional to the amount of control they tried to exert. Ford believed he was saving workers from the exploitative system of indentured servitude pervasive during Brazil’s rubber boom, but failed to understand the social dynamics that would dictate whether his new system was actually a success.

I found Ford’s evolution to be a particularly compelling part of the story. His massively integrated manufacturing system helped move people out of small towns and into urban centers. Despite this and his seeming contempt for the past, he idealized Puritan, small town America in the extreme. This story of trying to re-establish something he was responsible for weakening was one of the more compelling parts of the book.

Grandin concludes with an epilogue, “Still Waiting for Henry Ford.” In it he sounds a cautionary note about ongoing attempts to “modernize” the Amazon. The engaging, insightful chapters preceding this allow it to avoid any hints of panic or exaggeration. The Amazon is still waiting for the promises of Henry Ford to come true.


While Grandin wisely does not attempt sweeping moral interpretation, it does seem that Ford truly believed he was helping the residents of the Brazilian Amazon. Unfortunately a complete disinterest in understanding their social and economic structure led to sub-optimal results.

date:2010-03-05 15:15:41
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slug:read-fordlandia-by-greg-grandin
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tags:2009, nonfiction, reading, sfpl

Read: “The Paperboy”, by Pete Dexter

I picked up The Paperboy after reading about Pete Dexter’s most recent novel, Spooner, on NPR.org. The Paperboy tells the story of two brothers from the (apparently) fictional Moat County, Florida. About ten years apart in age, they’re also quite different people: Jack, the younger, has just been expelled from the University of Florida after being dropped from his swimming scholarship. Ward, the elder, has gone into the family business, and is a reporter with the Miami Times. As the book opens, Jack has moved home and taken a job working for his father at that Moat County paper. Ward, working in Miami, keeps to himself and is primarily concerned with getting the story “right”.

The Paperboy could be described as a newspaper procedural: on the surface it tells the story about getting a story; in this case a story exploring the trial of man convicted of murdering a local, racist sheriff, a trial which was, well, irregular. I suppose it makes sense: Dexter was a newspaper man before he was a novelist and screenwriter. But if The Paperboy were only about the news business, I doubt it would have kept my attention.

Throughout the book there are questions as theme: How well do you know the people you love? How well do you really want to? As the story progresses, Jack sees his brother working for what seems like the first time, he initially wonders what’s going on inside his head, and eventually decides that he really doesn’t need to know. That even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t understand. Ward’s approach to the story and to life stands in contrast: his need to get the story “right” goes beyond accuracy, to a compulsive desire for truth and completeness. These two characters drive the story forward in a way I found believable, engaging, and enjoyable.


Dexter [co-]wrote both Michael and Mulholland Falls; interesting combination.

date:2010-02-28 19:06:06
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slug:read-the-paperboy-by-pete-dexter
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tags:1995, fiction, reading, sfpl