Genre: Literary Fiction
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.