Paperboy won the Green Carnation Prize a few years ago, and I dismissed it because I didn’t read memoir. I’m not sure why I don’t read memoir, and I didn’t actually have a reason for it, so when I was in London at Gay’s The Word bookshop a while back I bought the book on a whim, and started it on a sunny afternoon last week.
Then I rationed it in 50 page blocks so I wouldn’t finish it too quickly, because it’s spectacular.
Christopher Fowler grows up in a sixties household, on streets where there are no cars, and double bills play at the cinema. His father fails to patch up the house repeatedly, is still attached to his mother’s razor-sharp apron strings, and doesn’t approve of his son’s ‘imagination’. His mother is quietly brave and let’s Christopher hide under the table, reading War and Peace to the cat to stop him having to go hold up a car, or a motorcycle, or other activity designed to toughen him up.
It would be really easy to say that this book is ‘a paean to imagination; books and films and adventures in your own head that allow you to survive a childhood, and to a long-lost era’. That’s often what memoirs are, but Fowler simultaneously reminds everyone that the sixties weren’t that great whilst enshrining a childhood in the same way that you look back at schoolyard bullying two decades later and think that the pants-wetting terror wasn’t that bad after all–telescopic nostalgia.
He has a fantastic way about anecdote and character, there being numerous stories that are both hilarious and perfectly render the people in his life. His father is the greatest creation; unrelentingly monstrous in an unheeding and bullish way that doesn’t relent until the very last chapter when he is finally filtered through an adult Christopher’s perspective, lending the novel a final knell of poignancy that can’t fail to affect you. The stifling claustrophobia of his family life and their home, especially the remote rambling pile they move to mid-novel, is exquisitely drawn, to that breathless point where I started feeling tense on behalf of someone I knew had already lived this thirty years ago.
The book is, above all, about how books and films were an outlet and escape, and naturally Paperboy does a simultaneously elegant and excitable job of describing the plethora of literary and filmic inputs (like a dog delirious in a city of new smells). It make me long for my formative years where I had no critical consciousness and would not distinguish in difference between the Secret Seven, the Lord of the Rings, or a cereal box.
Above all of this, what made me absolutely love Paperboy, was Fowler’s mastery of language. His way with a turn of phrase, a description or a twist of dialogue, is sweaty-jealousy-inducing. I took photographs of my favourite phrases: ‘a moist craquelure of fear’, the word ‘carphology’ (a delirious fumbling under bed linen) and ‘a Gallimaufrey of Hogarthian grotesque’. Descriptions are often horrifyly evocative: ‘Simon met a blue-eyed blonde called Erica, whose breasts were each bigger than her head. Erica had a look of sexual insolence that suggested she would introduce herself by sticking her hand down your pants. I got her best friend Dina, who had legs like a bentwood chair and a complexion like wood-chip wallpaper.’ The very Dina who, when he broke up with her, screamed on the floor and hung on to his ankles, cracking me up into uncontrollable giggles for half an hour straight.
So that’s another pointless critical snobbery banished to the cupboard. Memoirs are fun, and Paperboy was, quite simply, spectacular.