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'Paperboy: Confessions Of A Future Engineer' by Henry Petroski

Memoirs of former paperboy fail to deliver

Sunday, May 05, 2002

By John Freeman


Paperboy: Confessions Of A Future Engineer

By Henry Petroski



Henry Petroski has made a career out of explaining how things work. His 1992 book, “The Pencil,” revealed that there was more to the instrument than just lead and eraser shavings.

He later did the same for Post-it notes, sticky pads and masking tape. Here was a writer who could turn even the tiniest instrument into a cause for celebration.

But in his latest book, Petroski addresses something of an equally commonplace nature -- childhood -- only to flounder in his attempts to bring it to life.

The memoir starts promisingly enough. The year is 1954, and Petroski and his family have relocated from Brooklyn to Cambria Heights, a step-up by anyone’s yardstick.

Instead of an apartment, they now have a house with two stories, a garage, and even a front lawn. When Petroski goes down into his cellar, he discovers the house also contains his birthday gift -- a new bicycle, still in its box.

This magnificent present allowed Petroski to secure a job as a carrier for The Long Island Press, a local tabloid delivered by a troop of entrepreneurial boys such as himself. In subsequent chapters, Petroski describes how he learned the ropes of his route -- how to fold, count and throw his papers, collect from errant customers, even be his own mechanic when his bicycle failed him.

Although these details are rich atmospheric fodder for a memoir, Petroski never opens his story up to bring his family or childhood friends into the picture. A paper route, after all, seems like a natural leaping off point for a father-son story, or at least a meditation on community and how it changes.

Instead, Petroski provides page after page of description of the mechanics of folding and tossing papers, how he socked away his money and then splurged on cigarettes or egg creams.

Even former paperboys will yawn as he attempts to spin poetry out of the yearly cycle of delivering the news.

To his credit, Petroski is a fine writer and he occasionally rewards a determined reader with inventive turns of phrase. After one terrible spill, a friend brings Petroski’s bike home, “carrying the carcass like a dead deer slung across the basket of his own bike.”

During the 1950s, Petroski remembers folding his “papers extra tight after Sputnik, lest they explode between my launching them from my armed bicycle and their landing on their intending targets.”

Yet even a string of these wonderful images cannot make up for what this book lacks, which is an essential drama. Petroski seems to have conceived this book as a “Portrait of an Engineer as a Young Man.” The paper route was not just a job to him, but a gateway to his community.

Getting up at dawn, reading the news, and then bringing it to neighbors, this book reveals, fostered Petroski’s sense that he needed to do something useful, something public.

This is a good idea for an essay, but it doesn’t work as a memoir because the author never makes clear what is at stake besides his own professional development. How did his parents feel about their move, about his spending so much time on the streets, or about the news that he delivered?

Many young men have delivered papers, and those who have might chuckle at a few of the anecdotes delivered here.

But memoirs must do more than just evoke an era and a childhood; that, after all, is what memory is for. They must teach us how to look at our past, and read beyond its most obvious headlines, something this book fails to do.

John Freeman is a writer in New York who delivered The Sacramento Bee for 10 years.

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