By Pete Dexter

Grand Central Publishing

469 pp. $26.99

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by David Hiltbrand

For his seventh novel, Pete Dexter returns to small-town Georgia, the setting for 1998's

Paris Trout

, his grim and gripping National Book Award winner.

This time Dexter has other perch to fry.

Spooner is the author's Tristram Shandy, an often bawdy bildungsroman. The title character comes into this world, like Elvis, with a stillborn twin. He's a kid whose instincts and urges are warped right from the cradle. Combine Spooner's bent nature with poor impulse control and a notable lack of remorse, and you have the makings of a chronic headache for the boy's honorable stepfather, until recently an exceptional naval officer with a promising career.

Kind, fair and preternaturally patient, the man finds himself saddled with a chronic and incomprehensible reprobate.

As always, Dexter is a lapidary stylist with a keen and unsparing eye for the world. Here he describes the constituency of an obese congressman who sets the plot in motion by keeling over at the 1956 Army-Navy game at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium:

"His district was the entire state, a flat, dry rectangle of prairie and plains out in the part of the country that is all rectangles and plains, and occupied by farmers and ranchers and the salesmen in wide, brightly colored ties who follow them, selling them Oldsmobiles and John Deere tractors."

What distinguishes Spooner from Dexter's previous work is that it is funny. Really funny. It is more in the vein of John Irving than the author's customary white-knuckle prose.

At one point, Spooner sits through a performance of Tchaikovsky by his most respectable relative, a classical pianist. "He enjoyed his uncle's concerts, except for the music, and wondered sometimes what the tunes would have sounded like in English."

About 200 pages in, you realize, not without alarm, that the novel is a diaphanously veiled account of the life and times of one Pete Dexter.

As a young man, Spooner gets a job as a reporter by walking into a newspaper office in Florida on a whim, an anecdote Dexter has often told about his own experience.

He savagely details the petty vanities of his fellow journalists.

"They were, in fact, like the parents of ugly babies, and gathered nightly in a bar across the street to complain to each other about editors and editing, and could recite word for word changes in their lead paragraphs from six months past."

The mirror aspect of the book continues as Spooner moves to Philadelphia, going to work for the Daily News (where Dexter made his bones).

He finds his calling as a columnist one day early in his tenure at the paper when he gets off the elevator at the wrong floor to witness "the spectacle of Jimmy Lester, the Daily News' asthmatic gossip columnist, passed out and drooling on the waiting room couch, making rooting noises in his sleep, dressed in monogrammed silk pajamas and Italian loafers, his tiny, plump hand wrapped around the handle of a machete."

Who wouldn't aspire to that lofty code of conduct?

Spooner becomes friends with a heavyweight boxer, Harry Faint, a curiously blithe warrior (and a transparent stand-in for Dexter's pugilistic pal, Tex Cobb).

Faint is another Philadelphia transplant who "ran for an hour or two in the morning and trained in the afternoon at Joe Frazier's gym on North Broad Street, where five or six world-ranked heavyweights were also in residence. Harry was thrown in with these fighters from the first day, and it is possible that in the history of the democracy no citizen has ever had his nose broken by so many different people in one week."

The problem with Dexter's chronological, autobiographical approach is that Spooner spends the last portion of the book in relative seclusion with his wife and daughter on an island off the coast of Washington state.

The humor and the scope of the novel evaporate in this dull homey stretch. In fact, for much of the time, Spooner is consumed in a tedious dispute with his neighbors. It echoes the narrow-minded concerns of Spooner's mother from early in the book, an irony that seems lost on our narrator.

In a sense, Spooner unfolds in three stages, the first two of which are vibrant.

Sort of like life.

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveon