In his irresistibly quirky novel, “Spooner” (Grand Central Publishing, 2010), Pete Dexter has created one of literature’s great original voices.
Easy to do perhaps when it’s largely autobiographical, but turns out it wasn’t easy at all. Dexter handed in his manuscript three years late, confounded by problems with brevity. He just couldn’t stop writing, and spent a year editing 250 pages from his life story. He could have written forever, he said. I could have read forever.

“Spooner” is a moving, sometimes macabre family saga with all the requisite elements: birth, death, and the banquet of emotions that happens in between – love, hate, joy, pain – emotions that are never more strongly evoked than by family. What sets Dexter’s writing apart is his fearless honesty and unstoppable humor.

Warren Spooner’s birth is an agonizing event, giving his mother something to complain about for the rest of her life. Spooner’s “better-looking” twin brother, Clifford, does not live through the ordeal, and so becomes his mother’s favorite child. Thus the stage is set for Spooner’s random, almost absent-minded rebellion. A loner from an early age, he finds his greatest comfort in the company of dogs. But his mother – sighing deeply at the slightest provocation – is allergic.

After Spooner’s father dies, his mother marries Calmer Ottosson, a man of quiet integrity and unimaginable forbearance. A bond develops between stepfather and son that grows like a vine around all obstacles in its path. In his stepfather, Spooner has an ally he doesn’t always recognize. But then, the decency of the selfless school teacher is unfamiliar.

The story is told in four sections, each chronicling a place, ranging from Milledgeville, Georgia to Whidbey Island, Washington, and each beginning with something akin to, “The trouble began when …” The pull of this book – apart from the poignant hilarity of the writing – is the compulsion to keep reading until something actually works out. Can a string of bad luck last a lifetime? Spooner does get the odd break.

His mother dies from an asthma attack brought on by a dog, but otherwise, things generally begin and end with trouble. Yet Spooner’s roller-coaster ride is grounded in an ineffable sense of rightness. No, things don’t always work out.

The Big Happy Family doesn’t gather round the Christmas tree. This is a family where the tree will catch fire, and somehow I’ve always trusted that kind of family. They may not like each other all the time, but they love with a deeper honesty, perhaps. In the face of trouble, they rally with unshakeable loyalty.

And Spooner eventually finds a life of peace and satisfaction, proving that sometimes things do work out. Still, at the end of the day, when the wrangle and tangle of family are sorted out, Spooner couldn’t be blamed for thinking what I’d be thinking – bring on the dog, that most perfect and uncomplicated of companions.