How Penny Hardaway brought a championship to a Binghampton basketball team.
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Midtown Memphis more than 50 years ago: It might as well be a world away in the pages of Paperboy (Delacorte Press), a young-adult, coming-of-age novel about a boy who knows the neighborhood of Vinton, Harbert, Carr, Melrose, Goodbar, and Peabody like the back of his hand — the same hand that throws newspapers on those very streets.
The year is 1959. The newspaper is the Memphis Press-Scimitar. The boy, age 11, is Victor Vollmer III. And he’s agreed to take over a friend’s paper route for a month, which is fine by his busy parents. They’ve got Nellie Avent, known as “Mam,” the family’s black housekeeper and cook, to look after the boy when they’re out of the house.
It’s fine too by Mrs. Worthington, a woman on Victor’s route with some very adult troubles to contend with, and by Mr. Spiro, who introduces the boy to a world of outside interests, including the wide world of literature and the ingredients of a well-lived life. Problem is: Victor is battling stuttering. Worse: He gets involved with a neighborhood junkman named Ara T, who may be good at petty thievery, but he and a bunch of South Memphis cutthroats are no match for Mam when she gets good and angry.
“Engaging” is just the word for this story, and the book’s target audience, young teens, will profit by the lessons taught and challenges described, among them, Victor’s speech impediment and the era’s racial divisions. But older audiences (and especially those who knew the city a half-century ago) will enjoy it too — enjoy the timely references (Britling Cafeteria, crewcuts, and My Weekly Reader) and Paperboy’s appealing, skillful storytelling.
Credit that skill, of course, to the book’s author, Vince Vawter, who grew up in the Midtown neighborhood he vividly and fondly recalls in Paperboy’s pages and who went on to a 40-year career in the newspaper business — first at the Press-Scimitar for more than a decade, then at the Knoxville News Sentinel.
In his author’s note, Vawter describes Paperboy, his debut novel, as more memoir than fiction, and that includes his own efforts, from an early age, to control his stuttering. Is he cured of it? No, he writes. Has he learned to deal with it? Yes, he also writes.
A good life lesson there, one that Penny Hardaway would not only endorse but applaud. Memphis readers of any age will, too.