12.27.2005

#29 Crapometer

Genre: Literary Fiction
Title: "Quartering"

A 13-year-old boy must take over his best friend's newspaper route for a month in the summer of 1959. The boy, only child of a prosperous Memphis family, loves to throw the papers, but the weekly collections force him to talk to people, exposing his debilitating stutter. The family's housekeeper, sensing the boy's apprehension, wants to help but understands like no one else that he must tackle this by himself. While words will not flow easily from the boy's mouth, throwing a newspaper or a ball gives him a rare serenity.

During the first week the boy encounters three people who, along with the beloved housekeeper, carry the story line -- an alcoholic housewife, a mysterious older gentleman with an abundance of answers and a junk man who roams the neighborhood with his gaudy push-cart.

The housewife quickly senses the boy's vulnerability as he is inexplicably drawn to the woman's red hair, red lipstick and strange moods. The woman eventually will confuse the boy even more as she seduces him in one of her alcoholic stupors.

The boy's initial meeting with the kindly gentleman, Mr. Prince, results in the boy running out of breath and briefly passing out while trying to tell the man his name. Upon recovering, the boy begins the first of four enriching conversations with the all-knowing Mr. Prince who tips the boy each week with one-fourth of a dollar bill with a single word hand-written on each piece.

Mam, the housekeeper, is wary of the junk man and warns the boy to keep away from him. The boy earlier had given the junk man his yellow-handled knife to sharpen so it would cut through the cord on the newspaper bundles. The junk man teases the boy about his speech impediment and won't give back his knife. The boy follows the junk man to an old coal shed in an alley where the man lives. The boy later returns when the junk man is not around to find an assortment of oddities and stolen items in the shed, but no knife.

The paper route continues to open a new world for the 13-year-old, but so does a dinner at an up-scale restaurant which abruptly ends when the boy embarrasses his parents by choking on his food. Later that night, the boy overhears his parents talking only to discover he was fathered by someone other than the man he knows as his father. The new knowledge is all the more confusing because he feels much closer to his father than his mother. The way his mother uses words incorrectly and the way she treats Mam disgusts him.

The Memphis weather turns brutally hot during the fourth week. On the last Friday the boy must do the collections, he comes into his room to find it ransacked and all his money taken from the desk drawer. Mam and the boy ride the bus downtown in pursuit of the junk man. They find his cart in back of what turns out to be a whorehouse. The boy hides in the cart while Mam marches in for a confrontation. The boy, alone with his thoughts in the cart, knows Mam has been in the house too long. He sneaks into the house to find the junk man with his hands around her throat. Summoning his power, the boy hurls a bottle at the junk man's head. Momentarily stunned, the junk man turns on the boy and begins to choke the life out of him. Mam plunges the yellow-handled knife in the junk man's neck. The whorehouse community efficiently cleans up the scene of the death, a common occurrence in the segregated Memphis of the late 1950s.

In the final two chapters the boy and Mam talk about the month's happenings. The boy, who is nameless throughout the entire manuscript, attempts to understand his seduction, the lessons that Mr. Prince has tried to impart and how a 13-year-old stuttering bastard might survive in the new world being unveiled.

"Quartering" (85,000 words in 16 chapters) is told in a first-person voice that is laid bare by a pre-adolescent truthfulness and humor. In addition to its strong narrative line, "Quartering" is the first work of fiction that attempts to discover the pathology of a severe speech impediment. The stuttering is handled in a way that does not hamper readability as it creates a unique tone. For instance, because the boy understands that a comma means there is a formal pause, he explains to the reader why he must write without commas. Spoken words don't come easy for the boy, so he holds all words in reverence. The totality of the story is summed up in the first paragraph:

"I didn't mind throwing the paper route. That's the first thing you need to know if you are going to take time to hear my story. To tell the truth. Throwing seemed to be what was holding my whacky life together. A hard throw that got away is the reason I had to take on the paper route in the first place. It's a longer story than I have any business trying to tell. But I'll try."



This is excellent. It does not mistake a chronology of events, for what the novel is about. It explains what might be considered , at first read, "mistakes": no commas. Even though the novel is in first person, the synopsis is not. This is a good choice.

There are some weird plot turns, but I'd be willing to read this.

28 comments:

Jaye said...

I'd read this one too.

Bella Stander said...

I find this difficult to believe:
"Quartering" is the first work of fiction that attempts to discover the pathology of a severe speech impediment.

There must be at least one YA novel that does. And what about Smike in NICHOLAS NICKLEBY?

Also, it's "wacky" not "whacky," and "upscale" isn't hyphenated.

Miss Snark, I congratulate you for your generosity & fortitude.

Jude Hardin said...

I like this. The only problem, a grown woman seducing a thirteen year-old boy. This is called child molestation, and if it's part of the plot it should be dealt with in a serious manner. Maybe it is in the novel, but the synopsis as is gives no indication.

What if the protagonist had been female, seduced by a grown man? Same principle. A child is a child. The seductress needs to be arrested, tried and convicted if there is to be any satisfaction by the end of the book.

Remodeling Repartee said...

I'm with bella; it's not bad, but the characters ("beloved housekeeper" "mysterious older gentleman," aka "kindly" "alcoholic housewife")and situation (coming of age in the segregated South, paper route) border on cliche.

It reeks of MFA, and a writer who thinks a lot of himself. (And I'll bet my overly-symbolic yellow-handled knife that it's a HE).

Perhaps it was one of few "literary" entries?

Jude Hardin said...

And nobody "comes of age" at thirteen. The protagonist should learn some things (appropriate to the 1959 setting) but no way should sex (other than masturbation) be part of the learning experience at that age.

Alina said...

"In addition to its strong narrative line, "Quartering" is the first work of fiction that attempts to discover the pathology of a severe speech impediment." You've read every single piece of fiction in the world? Wow!

Also, the sentence about "fathered by a man other than the one he considered his father" has too much "father" in it, especially considering there's a "father" in the next sentence. I'd try rephrasing things so they sound less redundant.

jerewrites said...

Oh, PLEASE, captain anomalous. This is FICTION we are writing. Leave your piety at the door when you're writing, lest your work become BORING. I thought the Synopsis sizzled. And teenaged boys DO get seduced in REAL life, without damage. It's part of REAL life. And fiction is all about truth.

Ben said...

I agree, I'd read this. Infact, it's the only synopsis on the whole page that actually made me read the whole thing, rather than just skim. I think because of the first sentence, I like that.

Bella Stander - Whacky is perfectly acceptable, with or without the H. Check your dictionary.

Bernita said...

One thing ( among many) I do not understand in synopsis is the style of blatant, biased, leading editorial announcement - "this is a fast-paced", or "a vivid sensual exploration",etc., etc.
Always strikes me as arrogant, presumptuous flatulent self-description, and only a few genteel degrees removed from stating "it's the next best-seller!"
Surely it is up to the agent/editor to determine and describe.

Jude Hardin said...

"...teenaged boys DO get seduced in real life, without damage."

Really? What qualifies you to make a statement like that? Are you a child psychiatrist?

Sure we're writing fiction, but fiction often deals with serious social issues and this, no matter how you slice it, is a serious social issue. I don't think it would be boring to deal with it in the novel. Quite the contrary.

So, jerewrite, you think it's cute for a boy to be raped? Once again, what if the protag was female? Would that be cute to you also?

Your comment is sexist and ridiculous.

Bonnie Shimko said...

So far, this is the synopsis I like best. If I were an agent, I'd ask to see the novel. If the voice turned out to be strong and original, any weak plot points could be fixed. I like dark and offbeat, characters with empty cupboards and empty souls. Wish I liked Science fiction and fantasy because it's so popular nowadays. Just don't. Maybe I'm too old.

Demented M said...

I don't get it. I keep reading this trying to figure out why it works. Sure the writing is okay, but the story doesn't intrigue me, not enough tension or excitement or specificity. What does he learn from the wise old man? What is on the bills? If it's important enough to be in the synopsis, shouldn't all the details be included?

The story is about what the boy learns about life--I know the basics of what happens but not how he feels about these incidents. How does the sexual experience affect him and the story? How does his interaction with the older man change him?

How do all these people tie into his feelings about his father if at all? How do all these 'lessons' culminate in the end? The rehash with Mam doesn't work for me, at least not in the synopsis. Transformative experiences should, imo, have an obvious, active change not a conversation over the dinner table.

I don't know whether or not the seduction is kosher or not, but I do wonder how NY views that kind of thing. I have a feeling it may be a publishing taboo.

If this is a great synopsis, I am screwed because I just do not get it.

M

jerewrites said...

Oh, Captain Anomalous, your self-righteous rant says so much about you and, more importantly, your writing.

(1) Serious issues? Your sucky Synoposis (#9) deals with severed fingers. Yah, that's gonna help ME deal with the important issues in my life.

(2) Respect your characters. Don't make them spew your personal moral code at your readers. When you do this, your writing becomes pure crap.

(3) A posting on your Synopsis mentions that your book's title comes from the Bible. OK, now your agenda becomes clear. Christian kook horror. Oh, boy.

(4) Quit writing. Attend divinity school. Parishioners expect to be preached to. Readers of SERIOUS fiction don't.

Piss up a rope.

Jude Hardin said...

Jerewrites,

First of all, my sucky synopsis is #7, so at least get your facts straight before starting in on the insults.

I never said this is a bad synopsis. My first words on my first comment were "I like this."

My personal moral code has nothing to do woth the fact that child molestation is illegal. We're talking letter of the law here. Maybe I'm too close to this issue, since I happen to be the father of a 13 year-old son. Here's my PERSONAL moral code: If I found out that a grown woman was seducing my son, I would wring her fucking neck.

All I'm doing is suggesting that this author deal with this issue if she's going to include it in her novel. I'm offering constructive crticism. Ever hear of that?

Your insults say a lot about you. Finish up that sophomore year before you start telling anyone to quit writing.

Anonymous said...

I stand by my assertion that "Quartering" is the first work of fiction that deals with the pathology of a speech impediment. Yes, I have tried to read all fictional works dealing with stuttering. If I've missed one, please let me know.

Believe it or not, child molestations did occur in 1959. The subject IS dealt with in a serious manner, even if through the virgin eyes of a 13-year-old.

If beloved housekeepers, mysterious older gentlemen and paper routes are cliches, perhaps the entire world is a cliche. Nice subject for an essay, don't you think?

I wouldn't be caught within ten miles of an MFA.

Tell me the symbolism of the yellow-handled knife. I must have missed it.

Thanks to all for your comments, literate and otherwise.

Bonnie Shimko said...

Anonymous,

This is my genre and I'm working on a novel in which a secondary character is a stutterer. You're right. The dialogue has to be handled carefully. I think the way you've dealt with it is very clever. And I'm happy to know that there are few literary characters with this speech problem. My guy jumped into my story fully formed, complete with his stammer, so I'm having to deal with him. Not so easy, but lots of fun.

Good luck with this.

Anonymous said...

I liked this one, if only because literary fiction is more up my alley than romance, fantasy, or commercial fiction. But I'm surprised by some of the comments here. Has anyone ever read John Irving? A 13-year-old boy being seduced (raped) would be the least of it in some of his novels! It rang true to me because I know someone who did have that happen to him around that age, maybe even slightly younger, and at the time I heard about it many years ago, things still hadn't changed enough in the world for him to realize it hadn't been his fault, or that the woman had behaved criminally and he was a victim. He had also never told anyone about it, other than a few friends years later. Things weren't so out in the open even then, and yet they happened and kids had to deal with them.

Sal said...

re stuttering in YA fiction:

The Only Outcast -- Julie Johnston
Tending to Grace -- Kimberly Newton Fusco
The Skating Rink -- Mildred Lee
Toxic Love -- Linda Holeman
The Silent Spillbills -- Tor Seidler
Secret Heart -- David Almond

More ...

Might be interesting for the synopsis writer to check how other authors handle speech patterns for someone with a stutter.

Jude Hardin said...

Anon: I never said that the molestation doesn't ring true or that it should be deleted. It seems like a crucial plot element, and deserves a bit more in the synopsis than "attempts to understand his seduction." One more sentence, perhaps explaining the emotional hole it has created, would do the trick.

If passed over in the novel as quickly as it is in the synopsis, it would not ring true for me.

The boy is not mentally challenged, he just stutters. Let him feel what that must be like at such a young age. If that had happened to me, I think I would have lifelong recurrent nightmares about the old drunken ho. Every time I saw red lipstick or got a whiff of cheap Scotch it would make me want to puke.

The author says he deals with it seriously, so I believe him/her.
But the synopsis, which is what we're critquing here, should reflect that.

By the way, I hope the rest of the novel doesn't sound as much like Holden Caufield as the first paragraph does.

jerewrites said...

Hi, Anon:

I love the whole concept of your story. It is original, sensitive. I can tell from the Synopsis.

Sadly, Captain Anomalous keeps returning like a bad penny. You see, in his world a boy who is seduced by an older woman will inevitably have an "emotional hole" and "recurrent nightmares' Me, I'd have wet dreams.

As a news reporter, editor, and published author, I am pretty jaded. But your Synopsis grabbed me from the start. I hope you get it published.

Maybe I'm a bit biased, 'cause I am from the South. But I hope you keep writing.

Jude Hardin said...

The bad penny returns (themes from JAWS plays here).

Jerewrites,

You're not jaded, you're an idiot. Read my comments. I never said one negative thing about this author.

If you're a reporter, editor and published author, where's your website? I'll be happy to choke on everything I've said if you'll kindly direct me to your work. Hell, I'll buy your book. Right now on Amazon. Just give me a title or a link. I have to admit, from your posts here, you're a pretty good writer. I'd like to see some of your work. I'm pretty sure you're a college student, but you have talent and you should channel your energies toward something more productive than insulting other people on the internet. Don't let the English department get its thumb too far up your ass.

Stop being an idiot, go and write your goddamn book. A wet dream will only take you so far.

Bonnie Shimko said...

The comments are almost as much fun to read as the synopsis. This one certainly did stir up emotions.

Anonymous said...

To Sal: Thanks for the list of YA books dealing with persons who stutter. Of the six you listed, I am familiar with two, even driving 600 miles to a book signing for Tor Seidler. I will certainly give the other four a look even though YA is not my genre.

My comment about "the only book of fiction to deal with the pathology of stuttering" seems to have caused a stir. Perhaps I am guilty of an overstatement, but I have been searching for more than 35 years for such books. Many books have characters who happen to stutter, but rarely do they delve into the physiological and psychological aspects of a speech impediment. My character's every breath is measured by his struggle for fluency, disclosing the tricks he plays on himself and others in order to communicate.

To test the veracity of my manuscript, I asked the head of the Speech & Hearing Dept. at the University of Tennessee to read it. He commented that all speech therapists who have patients who stutter should read the story.

But I've gone on too long. Thank you for your positive suggestions.

The Green Cedar said...

I avoid literary fiction (much prefer the genre stuff), except occasionally a book suckers me in. This one would.

All that and a flame war, to boot.

Nora McCrea said...

Dear Anonymous,

I think when a piece provokes reaction as we have seen here, that's a good sign. It's impossible to please everyone after all.

I think children who are abused often don't know what to make of their abuse at the time. I say that as a teacher who's had to make the call to protective services after a confidence was shared with me, and as a survivor of sexual abuse. That aspect of the novel synopsis rang true to me.

I too found myself reading the whole thing rather than skimming. The voice was evocative, strangely light in a flat, subdued, shimmering sort of way. I also learned something from Miss Snark's comment that you grouped each thread in a separate paragraph instead of following events chronologically. Well done.

Anonymous said...

I’ve been working on a book for the last 10 years in which every character stutters. In fact, that’s why it’s taken me so darn long to finish. There’s a child seduction scene in it to, around chapter 14, but it’s done by aliens, so nobody really gets hurt. The entire whorehouse community will rally round this book, if I ever finish it.

Remodeling Repartee said...

Wow, that's really funny anonymous. A refreshing douse after all this flaming.

I have to say, I feel my previous comments were a bit mean-spirited. I have reflected on this for a week and, since I'm not the only commentator with this theme, I have this to offer the author: your synopsis, while well-written, comes off as pretensious. You seem not to be aware of this, which could be a problem.

The novelist who runs my critque group always asks a writer who sets a story in the past; why? Usually, it's because it's based or inspired by an event in the author's life. If it was just about being the "first work of fiction that attempts to discover the pathology of a severe speech impediment," (please, have someone read that sentence to you and pretend, if you can, that you didn't write it), then why not deal with that issue in present time?

I still feel like the characters and situation are cliche; not archtypal. But I am trying to say something helpful about it. They feel freeze-dried from the author's past, with no fresh insights given by time. I'm thinking of Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. It was published in 2004 and deals nearly 100 years of time and many generations, but the situations, characters and writing feel modern, not stilted. They don't distract from the story.

About the knife; so many good writing teachers say that the best symbolism is unconscious; but that assumes a self-conscious writer. The days of Rosebud are over. This is a style issue, and about as hard to explain to someone as why one pair of vintage shoes works with a modern suit and another one doesn't.

It's plain you are a clever writer and that many would read this book. Just trying to assist with a wider appeal; which you may or may not be interested in.

Anonymous said...

To Remodeling Repartee: Your well-crafted thoughts are appreciated. I feel my first several drafts of the manuscript did have some pretentious writing in it. I moved some plotting around and kept whacking to get rid of as much as I could. I thought about setting the story in the present, but part of the story is the backward (and dangerous) thinking of speech pathology in the 1950s. The narrative line also depends on the segrated Memphis of the 1950s. As for the characters being cliches, I can see how you arrive at that from the synopsis. That is a weakness I have since corrected. I'm fully confidant the characters don't come across as cliched as their actions are revealed in the story. As for the situation being a cliche (coming of age on a paper route in the segregated South), maybe so. But you have to go with what gets you where you want to be.