Late in his novel, Pete Dexter writes that his main character, Warren Spooner, sees himself as "the full grown, still loveable mongoloid child doing his best but mucking up the works for the thousandth time". With all the sympathy a wry observation can muster, Tom Stechschulte delivers this and every other line in the story with the empathy and pity necessary to maintain the listener's compassion for Spooner. He's a character that's unforgivably dim at times, clueless about cause and effect in his own life. But Spooner is also loveably unaware. What could be read as uncultured or uninterested comes across as sweetly naïve and endearingly ignorant. Aiding the uphill battle to turn stupidity into charm is Stechschulte, who sounds downright Jeff Lebowski-like at times. The similarities between Jeff Bridges' California drawl and Stechschulte's laidback, almost non-committal narration are many, but only serve to underline Spooner's characteristics. Stechschulte's voice is never too dry to mask the emotions that well up throughout the novel, and by the end you'll find yourself inching closer to breaking down in tears with each microscopic, perfectly timed inflection of his performance.
This book may be about Spooner's life growing up first in the Midwest and later settling on the east coast, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it's more about Calmer Ottosson, Spooner's steady handed stepfather. Calmer is a presence throughout the novel, even in the large patches where he's missing from the action. He's an ex-Navy guy with a cool head and a knack for soft, but firm leadership as a father who raises Warren from the time he's four years old. Always there for the son who stands too close to the fire, gets in trouble with stinging ants, and then later in life as Spooner is laid up in a hospital after a severe physical beating, Calmer is the definition of, well, calm. While never spoken out loud, there's a special relationship between Spooner and his stepfather that extends past family and veers into an almost spiritual kinship. For two distinctly different characters, this is as much a surprise to them as it is to the listener. But Pete Dexter sells this story slowly and almost imperceptibly. After some unfortunate setbacks late in his life, Calmer moves in with his stepson. The father becomes the son, and the son becomes the father. So while you're not shocked that Spooner realizes, despite a life of striking out on his own, that he "craved the good opinion of his stepfather more than he could ever admit, and felt the chance to find out where he stood with him slipping away", you're still touched by this revelation. Spooner is never ham-fisted or foisted upon the reader rather it is a subtle and emotionally heartfelt story drawn out over great lengths and with great results. Josh Ravitz