Top positive review
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Strong debut novel (4.5 stars)
on August 7, 2016
God’s Pocket isn’t as strong as Paris Trout. That isn’t surprising, since God’s Pocket was Pete Dexter’s debut novel. It is nevertheless a strong start to Dexter’s career as an award-winning author.
The novel begins with the death of Leon Hubbard. The police are told that the death was accidental but the reader and a handful of witnesses know that to be untrue. Over the next few days, the residents of God’s Pocket, a working class area in South Philadelphia, talk about what a great young man Leon was. Nothing could be less true, but it doesn’t pay to speak ill of the dead -- particularly in God’s Pocket, where everyone sticks together.
Leon’s step-father, Mickey, knows that Leon was a worthless psychopath. Mickey must do his best to appease Leon’s mother while finding a way to pay for the funeral -- gambling on the horses is one possibility, trying to get paid for his most recent truck hijacking is another. Nothing works out very well for Mickey or for his friend Bird, who is in financial trouble of his own due to a misunderstanding with the mob. Things aren’t much better for the undertaker, who refuses to bury Leon without payment in advance.
The novel’s other key character is a newspaper columnist, the celebrated voice of the common man, who hasn’t believed a word he’s written in at least ten years. He’s supposed to be writing about Leon’s death but he’s more inclined to woo Leon’s mother. She appreciates the attention even if it’s coming during what should be a time of mourning. The columnist and Leon’s mother are both coming unglued in their own ways.
Dexter gives the residents of God’s Pocket a believable group identity. They look out for each other even as they gossip about each other. They are suspicious of outsiders; they rarely leave God’s Pocket except for work; they feel downtrodden and misunderstood as they divide their time between the two neighborhood bars. Attention to local detail adds to the book’s authenticity.
Leon’s death and its true cause weave in and out of the plot, but the story is largely Mickey’s. The plot moves in unexpected directions but it always manages to be convincing. Several moments of dark humor lighten the mood. Perhaps too much attention is given to the columnist (a natural inclination for Dexter, who was himself a columnist) and not enough to the character who is most centrally involved in Leon’s death, but since that story is entertaining from beginning to end, I really can’t fault it. If I could, I would give God’s Pocket 4 1/2 stars.