In his Author’s Note, Vince Vawter uses a quote from James Earl Jones, “One of the hardest things in life is having words in your heart that you can’t utter.” Jones, well-known throughout the world for his deep, resonating voice and award-winning roles in the movies The Hunt for Red October, Field of Dreams, The Lion King, plus so many others, suffered with a stutter as a young boy.
Paperboy captures the experiences of author Vince Vawter, who grew up in Memphis, Tennessee during the late 1950s. Mr. Vawter, like James Earl Jones, also suffered with stuttering; he remembers stuttering as early as five year of age and claims that he hasn’t been cured of his stutter, just overcome it. In this, his first novel, we meet 11-year old Victor Volmer III, fondly nicknamed Little Man by Mam, his family’s live-in black housekeeper and Little Man’s true champion. Little Man is growing up in a traditional southern city during a time of huge change for all Americans, white and black. As Little Man struggles to communicate with his peers and adults, he also wrestles with the injustices that he witnesses daily: Mam can’t go to the zoo except for specified times, he can’t attend Mam’s church, he chooses to sit in the back of the bus with Mam where she is more comfortable, and he struggles with the obvious lines in his community between those that have (the whites) and those that have not (the blacks). The story setting is the summer of 1959 and Little Man takes on the responsibility of a paper route for his one friend Rat. While Rat is away visiting his grandfather in the country, Little Man overcomes many personal fears and doubts to deliver the evening newspaper along Rat’s route and then each Friday to personally knock on each door to collect the paper money. This job requires more talking than Little Man has probably done in his whole life! But as most summers are, this is one of growth and experience for Little Man. Mr. Vawter has woven a beautiful tapestry of Little Man’s life as it changes after experiencing the lives of those on his paper route. Little Man finds a friend in Mr. Spiro, an adult who is willing to sit and listen to his questions and provide thought-provoking answers. Mrs. Worthington is young and beautiful, but Little Man senses her sadness and desperation, while TV Boy, who sits day after day in front of the TV without the sound playing, is a puzzle to Little Man. But, while all these impact Little Man, it’s the influence of the neighborhood junk man, Ara T, who turns events in Little Man’s world upside down.
This is a beautifully crafted book that has the reader thinking about so many things: the impact of a speech impediment on communication, racial equality, “traditional” roles of men and women, and finally, friendship. What a wonderful first novel for Vince Vawter, a retired newspaperman, now living in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.