The Shelf: Misfortunate Son and Sorrow Wood


Misfortunate Son

The brilliantly subversive author of Paris Trout, Deadwood, and Train is predictable only in his unpredictability. Reading Pete Dexter often feels like a ride on a runaway train, but the view is always new. Spooner (Grand Central Publishing, $26.99) opens with the brutally protracted birth of Warren Whitlow Spooner, the only surviving twin born to a woman who kept a running log of “life’s unspeakable ordeals.” (The fifty-three-hour labor always ranked in her top five.) The brother who was delivered dead was forever the mother’s favorite, setting the tragicomic tone for Spooner’s life of miserable luck and worse judgment. As a boy in Milledgeville (where Dexter grew up), Spooner breaks into neighbors’ homes and urinates in inappropriate places. He is a baseball phenom for a brief time, then becomes a newspaperman and novelist (like Dexter). Ultimately, he retreats to Whidbey Island, off the coast of Washington State (where the author now lives), followed by more misfortune. Spooner’s story runs parallel with that of his stepfather, Calmer Ottosson, a high school principal and former naval officer who is as upstanding as Spooner is unhinged. The epic tale that emerges of stepfather and son is poignant in a way that only Dexter could pull off, with uproarious scenes, neck-snapping twists, and pitch-perfect language: “The air in the house was heavy and wet from all the relatives inside, and in this sort of proximity to each other the aunts were like high-strung dogs, snapping blindly at any movement out on the periphery, and if one of them took a step back—showed weakness to the others—it was woe is me for her.”

Sorrow Wood

Medallion Press, $24.95

Raymond L. Atkins’s second book (after last year’s The Front Porch Prophet) is a casually clever, darkly humorous mystery that centers on the fiery death of a self-proclaimed witch in drowsy Sand Valley, Alabama. Many secrets are revealed, in no hurry whatsoever; solving the mystery is almost beside the point, anyway, when the cast of characters is this intriguing. Police Chief Wendell Blackmon and his adored wife, Reva, the town’s reluctant probate judge, are the cornerstones of Sand Valley society, offering wildly different worldviews and a united front. Wendell felt “a general, vague dissatisfaction with almost everything, a mildly negative outlook on the world that was coupled with a quiet, nagging yearning for something he could not identify.” Reva, on the other hand, “took each day as it came, happy as a sailor in a liberty port to be drawing breath and seeing another sunrise.” Sorrow Wood swings loosely from past to present, interweaving stories of Wendell’s and Reva’s childhoods, courtship, and marriage with the witch’s current murder investigation in 1985. The author, who lives in Rome, Georgia, has a firm but subtle grasp of the freakishly ordinary people and understated, often unintentional humor that make a small town tick.

Also New

The Vietnam War: A Graphic History

Hill and Wang, $19.95
Along with Dwight Jon Zimmerman, Wayne Vansant, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and earned his degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1975, retells the war in classically drawn panels. Much of the book’s dialogue is taken from historical documents, interviews, and news accounts.

New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best, 2009

Algonquin Books, $14.95 paperback
The twenty-fourth edition of this astute anthology of works by established and emerging writers (this time edited by Madison Smartt Bell) includes two Georgians: Atlanta native Tayari Jones and Charlotte Holmes of Augusta.