When the unnamed narrator of “Paperboy,” Vince Vawter’s semi-autobiographical novel for all ages, agrees to take over his best friend Rat’s paper route for a month during the summer after sixth grade, he has no inkling of the complicated events about to unfold.
Set in Memphis in 1959, “Paperboy” is about one introspective young boy who is trying to understand the confusing ways of a wider world. “I was an eleven-year-old kid standing on a street corner in Memphis in short pants,” he remembers. “I felt like I was so small that I would be blown away if the slightest puff of wind came up. But you didn’t have to worry about any kind of a breeze showing up on a late July afternoon in Memphis.”
Because he is unable to say even his own name without stuttering, he avoids using it. “I probably get over things that hurt faster than most kids,” he writes. “I don’t have much of a choice seeing as how my stuttering hurts me so many times during a day.”
He has learned a few tricks to help him push out the sounds that get stuck. Singing the words sometimes helps, and so does shouting. Doing something physical — swinging or tossing a pencil in the air and catching it as he speaks — can work too. What mostly helps, though, is a technique he learned from his speech therapist: “Gentle Air” involves pushing out a little breath before attempting a difficult sound. “When I feel like I’m going to have trouble saying a word,” he explains, “I try to sneak up on it by making a hissing noise. When you’re eleven years old, it’s better to be called a snake than a retard.”
Aside from his stutter, the narrator is a pretty average 1950s kid. He lives with his mom and dad and their imperturbable and fiercely loyal housekeeper, Mam, who calls him “Little Man” and is his “best friend in all the world except when it comes to playing ball and then Rat takes over.” Aside from baseball, the narrator also loves typing, which frees him to use his full vocabulary, and he uses it to tell this story in a simple, straightforward style.
Though he is happy to help out Rat with the paper route, he fears the reactions of Rat’s customers when they first notice his speech impediment. “The reason I hate talking to people who don’t know me is because when they first see me I look like every other kid,” he says. “Two eyes. Two arms. Two legs. Crew-cut hair. Nothing special. But when I open my mouth I turn into something else. Most people don’t take the time to try to understand what’s wrong with me and probably just figure I’m not right in the head. They try to get rid of me as fast as possible.”
He begins to relax a little once he makes the acquaintance of Mr. Spiro, a friendly Greek merchant marine who lives on his route. Mr. Spiro has traveled all over the world, and his house is filled with books. A patient listener and lifelong student of philosophy and history, the older man sympathizes with the boy’s struggles. To the narrator’s delight, Mr. Spiro quotes Voltaire: “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”
No less intriguing is the beautiful but troubled Mrs. Worthington. The boy is puzzled and saddened by the often alcohol-fueled incidents he witnesses at her house.
He tries to concentrate on doing a good job for Rat. To that end, he takes his knife — needed to cut apart the bales of newspapers and prepare them for delivery — to a disreputable local junkman for sharpening. But the man refuses to return it, and the boy decides to take matters into his own hands, embarking on an odyssey that forces him to confront the racism, crime and violence hidden beneath his own familiar world.
Vawter’s debut novel is a rare treat, a gentle coming-of-age story that manages to be smart, funny, poignant, and original — the perfect marriage of style and substance.
This 11-year-old paperboy speaks from the heart, in a narrative voice that rings clear and true.
Author grew up in Memphis’ Central Gardens neighborhood
Vince Vawter grew up in Memphis, in the Midtown neighborhood now called Central Gardens, where his novel “Paperboy” (Delacorte Press, $16.99) is set.
Vawter worked at the Memphis afternoon newspaper, the Press-Scimitar, from 1970 until it closed in 1983, and was managing editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel from 1984 to 1995. He moved to the Evansville (Ind.) Courier & Press in 1996 as editor and president and was named publisher in 1997. He retired in 2004 and lives in Louisville, Tenn.
By e-mail, Vawter told The Commercial Appeal that “Paperboy,” originally written for adults, was reconceived as a young-adult novel because of a suggestion by his agent.
“While it is suitable for younger readers, I like to think of it as a book for all ages,” he said. “After all, the book includes Voltaire, ancient and modern philosophy, existentialism and a discussion of the soul. And Howdy Doody, too.”
Q: The story is set in the 1950s, which is described as a slower, more peaceful time, but the paperboy who struggles with his stuttering encounters scary aspects of life on his route — alcoholism, domestic violence, an unstable junk collector who haunts the alleys.
A: The junkmen with their carts were ubiquitous, but they were not threatening. I liked all of them, mostly because they would just wave to me and didn’t make me talk. Most of them made their livings by doing odd jobs around the neighborhood. I guess as I met new people (I was a sub for one month on a Press-Scimitar paper route), I discovered another side of the neighborhood — and of myself.
Q: Is this a detailed personal history?
A: Every one of the scenes dealing with my stutter, from passing out trying to say my name to throwing up when I thought someone was laughing at me, are as historically accurate as I could make them.
Before I started writing the book about 10 years ago, I got a list from the American Speech Hearing Association that documented how stuttering had been handled in literature through the years. The list contained more than 100 books. I read, or at least looked at, all of them. Most of the fictional characters who stuttered were adults, and they were never the central character of the narrative. I could find no books that really delved into what goes on in the mind of a young person who stutters. I thought that story needed to be written.
Q: Are the characters based on real people?
A: Every character in the book, except for Mr. Spiro, is based on a person from my childhood. Some of the events are compilations of different happenings. For instance, I witnessed one of the neighborhood junkmen die in our backyard from what everybody called “the fits.” It probably was alcohol poisoning. And I spent a lot of time poking around in the alleys, probably in places I shouldn’t have been.
Q: And the book-loving Mr. Spiro, with the compassionate understanding of the stuttering paperboy?
A: I kept wondering where he came from while I was writing the book, and then I realized he is the present-day Vince Vawter.