Monday, April 14, 2014

Gentle air

Memoirs, books related to Islam, and books for kids. I feel like I've been reading a lot of "assignments" lately. (Mostly they are -- of course -- assignments of my own making, but I'm very much feeling like my reading list is a bunch of "have-tos.") Not all of these are a chore, the book I'm discussing here was quite enjoyable as was the one I just finished for my book group: Molly Gloss' The Jump-off Creek.

On to the book in hand: Paperboy by Vince Vawter. A Newbery Honor winner this year, it's from the "assigned" list. This tender little novel is the story of an 11-year-old boy telling what happened during an eventful month in the summer of 1959 when he took over the paper route of his best friend. The boy withholds his name for most of the story so I'll call him what the family's black maid, Mam, does: Little Man. Little Man doesn't say his name because he's got a serious stutter and avoids speaking as often as he possibly can. He prefers writing, and he is telling us this story by typing it out.

Little Man's got a speech therapist, who is teaching him the trick of "gentle air," a conscious intake of breath then exhaling it as he says the words that trouble him.  He's feeling a little confident -- as well as in debt to his friend -- that he agrees to sub on the paper route. He's really only worried about Fridays -- the day he has to knock on the door of his customers and collect what they owe him.

Nothing much happens, and yet a whole lot does. This is one of those books where the protagonist is at a crossroads, participating in small events that set him out on the road to being a little more grown up. Little Man makes some acquaintances on his route, notably a beautiful young (and occasionally) drunk housewife and a retired merchant mariner with a houseful of books. Each reaches out to the boy without regard to how he speaks and he is quickly enchanted by both. Against the advice of Mam, he pays a local junkman, Ara T, to sharpen his jackknife -- the better to cut the cord holding his newspapers together. But when he tries to get the knife back, things take a disturbing turn. And finally, snooping in his mother's closet, he comes across a piece of paper that tells him something he didn't know about his family.

The narrative is as slow as a sensible bike rider conserving his energy during the heat of a Memphis summer, as gentle as the air that Little Man pushes out, and occasionally packs a punch like one of Little Man's hard pitches. It also has an intimate feel that makes you certain that at least some of the story is autobiographical. Not every writer can make such ordinary events worth listening to.

I enjoyed this, while wondering at Little Man's affinity for adults. There are no other children in this book, with the exception of his best friend who is mentioned frequently but only appears at the end, and another boy that Little Man wonders about but meets only after the events of the summer, after he's begun to see the world in a more nuanced way. I see how Little Man would be fairly solitary to avoid the bullying of his peers, but surely he knows more than one kid who won't tease him? The adults have adult problems (alcoholism, homelessness) that are seen authentically through a child's eyes and thank goodness an adult solves his problem with Ara T. And in another realistic way, the questions Little Man has about that piece of paper he finds are never resolved.

Race, and race relations, are a sidebar in Paperboy, only a few mentions of where Mam can sit on the bus. Little Man has a more intimate relationship with Mam than he appears to have with his mother, but there's no commentary on this. Mam takes him briefly into one of Memphis' black neighborhoods, which Little Man only observes as poor, not that he's the only white person. Again, a sign to me of the autobiographical nature of the events he's recording. It's kind of refreshing, actually, to have a story take place in the civil-rights-era South that doesn't mention civil rights. On the other hand, it's just another white kid's story.

A favorite narrator, Lincoln Hoppe, reads the book. He reads with a slight drawl and quite deliberately, accurately mirroring Little Man's hesitant speech ... even when he's writing, not speaking. When he does speak Little Man's dialogue, the gentle air intakes are audible and troublesome words are stammered, but with restraint. As Little Man himself says, "it's not so much like fat pigs in cartoons." He provides distinct characterizations for the novel's other characters and these work out pretty well. He doesn't get too femmy or slurry for the alcoholic housewife; while Mr. Spiro, the mariner, tends to speak with a little too much intensity, like everything he is saying is so important.

An afterword (oddly called "a comment on the text") -- about stuttering -- is read by the author, and you can hear the hesitations clearly. Even though he's long past the teasing age, was it a huge deal for him to make a permanent recording for many to hear? It seems likely he thought it was important to share his own experiences with young -- possibly stuttering -- readers as he provides, a little awkwardly, some web addresses for further information. It's always a little trying, listening to someone read http ... etc.; imagine how trying this would be for someone with a speech impediment.

[A famous stutterer, this portrait of King George VI by Sir Gerald Kelly hangs in the Royal Collection. This image was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

Paperboy by Vince Vawter
Narrated by Lincoln Hoppe
Listening Library, 2013.  6:10

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