Book Review – The Paper Men by William Golding

I’ve been a huge fan of Mr. Golding’s work since I first read Lord of the Flies. It impressed me so much that, I’ve read everything by him that’s still in print. Why you may wonder? As I tell everyone who asks me that Golding is the one person I’ve come across who’s just as miserable and pessimistic as I am. Books like The Spire and Pincher Martin made my views on human nature seem upbeat. One can imagine my surprise when I opened the pages of The Paper Men. Golding did a complete about face and crafted a comedic piece. Based on my familiarity with his work, his skill in doing so didn’t surprise me.

Golding established the humorous tone of this work at the very beginning. A noise awakened the protagonist, Wilf Barclay. Suspecting a badger got into the garbage he grabbed his gun and went downstairs. To his astonishment the creature going through his trash turned out to be his house guest, a professor of English literature. “You must be very hungry, Tucker.” Barclay said. “I’m sorry we didn’t feed you better.” (Page 5) Shortly after this, Barclay’s pajama bottoms fell around his ankles. Definitely the most atypical opening I’ve ever read in a William Golding novel.

The story itself described the relationship between Wilf Barclay, a British author, and Rick Tucker, a college professor. The latter longed for the writer to appoint him as his official biographer. The author had no interest in doing so. In the scene I mentioned above, Tucker searched Barclay’s rubbish to locate writings the author may have discarded. While the two had a dysfunctional or series of antagonistic interactions throughout the book, I liked Golding’s continual use of humor. He even used a catchphrase popularized by contemporary comedian Jon Lovitz. “That’s—er, the ticket.” (Page 105) I’m not familiar with other instances of ‘serious’ writers quoting Saturday Night Live sketches.

Among all novelists awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, I believe Golding possessed the best overall writing ability. The Paper Men came out in 1985; two years after he received the honor. It provided a good example of why. Without giving away spoilers, the author showed a spectacular proficiency at foreshadowing. He repeatedly dropped hints by making references to a certain object. People who’ve read the book will understand. I’m not going to ruin the fun for readers interested in delving into it.

Golding’s unique gift for plot twists achieved its apex in this one. This book had the cleverest ending I’ve ever read. He crafted the narrative in a way any writing instructor would declare impossible. For that reason alone, I’d encourage people to read The Paper Men. Trust me. It will expand one’s view just how a writer can structure a novel.  I’m very surprised it’s not cited more often.

Expanding the epistemological scope of novel writing isn’t something any author can do. Even fewer can do so through a comedic work. This author achieved it. While The Paper Men may not be as famous as The Inheritors or To the Ends of the Earth, that’s more of a testament to the caliber of the writer than the quality of the work. That observation would make even William Golding smile.

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