Friday, June 20, 2008

The Book You Have to Read:
“God’s Pocket,” by Pete Dexter

(Editor’s note: This is the eighth entry in our ongoing Friday blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s selection comes from David Corbett, author of The Devil’s Redhead [2002], Done for a Dime [2003], and the Edgar Award-nominated Blood of Paradise [2007].)

I run a reading group at my local independent bookstore premised on the blurred if not imaginary line between literary fiction that deals with crime and crime fiction with literary merit. (The reading list this year includes, for example, works by Denise Mina, Richard Price, Daniel Woodrell, Susannah Moore, Peter Carey, S.J. Rozan, and James Sallis among others. To learn more, click here.)

My biggest disappointment so far in selecting titles for the group was the discovery that God’s Pocket, Pete Dexter’s first novel--and, to some minds, his best--is out of print.

The first time I met Dennis Lehane, we talked about how much this 1984 book had influenced us, and traded some of our favorite lines, memorized years before. The brilliance of the novel lies in its rendition of the lives of working-class people in a hardscrabble Philadelphia neighborhood touched by an unsolved worksite murder--the victim is a young speed freak only his ex-girlfriend genuinely mourns. But it’s the sharpness of Dexter’s wit and his simplicity of style that make that rendering so authentic.

Dexter is the anti-sentimentalist par excellence, and the at times searing effect of his prose is never--never--the result of a grand vocabulary or syntactical elegance. He just gets things right, especially the mysteriously and unimaginably offbeat things that life serves up sometimes to taunt the imagination. Dexter, a longtime journalist, understands that reality is simply the most creative thing going, and the best way to get that across is with simplicity. Brilliant comic timing doesn’t hurt, of course. His prose doesn’t dazzle, it snaps, and he’s a master of the change-up. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve re-read a passage from this book simply to figure out how the hell he got away with something.

There is no trick. Dexter just has the keenest eye of any observer on the American scene, and doesn’t flinch from conveying the absurdity, the cruelty, the desperation, the irrationality, the self-destructive élan, and the tragic optimism of the people and situations he portrays. His scenes seamlessly fuse slapstick and heartbreak: a neighborhood funeral director kicking a coffin out the back door of his funeral parlor into the snow because the deceased’s stepfather asks for credit; the stepfather’s wife musing on her husband’s mob connections--and how his dick resembles a fish--as they’re making love the morning of her son’s murder; the stepfather chasing his stolen meat truck down a major boulevard until the thief has an accident, at which point the yet-to-be-embalmed stepson comes tumbling out the back.

Track this book down. Find it somehow, read it. Laugh out loud. Marvel at it.

Next week, Tony Broadbent--Ian Fleming aficionado and author of the incomparable The Smoke and Spectres in the Smoke--will be providing his insights for Friday’s forgotten books series. He’s a knowledgeable cat, a Brit to boot, with one of the most unique and perceptive takes on modern letters of anyone I know. Don’t miss it.


Todd Mason said...

Hard to draw a URL on individual posts on this blog...

J. Kingston Pierce said...

No, not particularly. Like other Blogger sites, all you have to do is go down to the time stamp at the bottom of the post. That's where the URL info resides. For instance, the URL for this post is:


pattinase (abbott) said...

Thanks for keeping it rolling. As always. Patti

Patrick Lennon said...

Sold! I'll go and find a copy now.