Spooner by Pete Dexter keeps surfacing as a top read. I first heard about it from Librarian Nancy Pearl on NPR and just saw that Vivien Jennings at Rainy Day Books recommends it.
From Nancy Pearl's review of the book:
Pete Dexter won the National Book Award for his novel Paris Trout. He's a brilliant writer who began what was once my favorite novel of his, The Paperboy, with a terrific first line, one of my all-time favorites, ever: "My brother Ward was once a famous man." With his new novel, Spooner, he's written my new favorite. Spooner is an autobiographical novel that will share pride of place on my bookshelves with books like John Irving's The World According to Garp, Steve Tesich's Karoo, Merle Miller's A Gay and Melancholy Sound, and Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole.
Spooner tells a coming-of-age story that is funny and heartbreaking, frequently at the same time. It's the story of a boy from Milledgeville, Ga., becoming a man, and how that man best learns to accommodate himself to the vagaries of the world. It's filled with unforgettable characters, both human and canine: Spooner's stepfather, Calmer; his friend Harry, a would-be boxing champion who follows Spooner where common sense shouldn't take either one of them; and a series of dogs (one named Lester Maddox) who share Spooner's life. Each one of them (even the dogs, I suppose) could become the main character in another novel, and I found myself wanting to know what happened next — I wanted more about Harry-the-boxer, Spooner's sister Margaret, and other characters. Dexter's narrator is a born storyteller, and as he spins one episode into another, I found myself just wanting more...
...Spooner is one of the very few novels I have read in a long time that I wished were longer; as someone said to me recently, telling me her positive reactions to the book, it's the novel Dexter was born to write.