Thursday, August 13, 2009

In Praise of Paperboys

I love those funny reading coincidences I discover as I read widely disparate selections. It happens all the time. One summer, hired shortly before school began, I had a dozen or more books to read from summer reading lists in order to be prepared for the three grade levels of students I would be teaching--and testing on their reading. Unlike the students, the reading lists were a wonderful challenge, and I recall marvelling at the similarities between Watership Down and Cry, the Beloved Country I never would have noticed if I hadn't read them so close together.

This summer, the list is my own, but it's happening again. I just finished Kent Haruff's Plainsong, after having read its sequel Eventide a couple of years ago. Even in the wrong order, they are such simple, beautiful stories. I find myself suggesting them to so many different kinds of readers. In the second novel, I fell in love with the two bachelor brothers who took in Victoria Robideaux, a pregnant teenage girl--completely out of their comfort zone.

Two of the several main characters in Plainsong are brothers, ten and eleven, who deliver the Denver newspaper in their town, picking up their stacks at the train station every morning. Since nowadays the paper is delivered (to those of us who still want contact with newsprint) by an adult in a car and is usually thrown in the most likely path of run-off from the neighbors' sprinkler, we forget about the day when newspaper delivery was on the short list of job possibilities for younger kids--right up there with babysitting (for fifty cents an house, no matter how many kids) and mowing lawns.

My husband was a paper boy, and when we go back to our hometown to visit, he could still name who lived in every house. No one paid online or mailed in a check. The delivery boy bicycled from door to door collecting, tearing off those tiny little perforated receipts, as I recall. At the receiving before his mother's funeral, I overheard an elderly woman saying, "Elizabeth loved her kids, especially that one that threw the paper."

This morning, unable to sleep in the wee hours, I got up and started Pat Conroy's new book South of Broad, his first novel in fourteen years. From page one, it is classic Conroy, full of prose that few other writers could get away with, and I'm already captivated. And what do you know: his protagonist Leo--Leopold Bloom King, God bless him--delivers papers with a sense of right and duty. (When he misthrows and the paper ends up in the camellia bushes, he gets off his bike and retrieves it, even though the people along his route set their watches by his passing.)

Nothing about Conroy's prose resembles that of Haruff, but I love them both. Each gives me characters I care about, conflict that makes me wriggle until it's resolved, set in places I can imagine--whether Charleston in the summer heat or a bitter cold Colorado winter. The paperboys are a bonus.


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