NORTH ATTLEBORO — Bob Thurber rose from his swivel chair inside his second-floor home office and politely asked his guest, 'You mind if I smoke?'
He grabbed a Camel wide, walked to the window with a fan blowing out, remained standing and – after lighting up – described the laughing old man he frequently pictured in his mind as a child growing up in then-dilapidated downtown Pawtucket.
“I understood at a pretty young age that it was me looking back at myself, and the old man was laughing at all the little issues, all the small day-to-day stuff,” offered Thurber. “To me, it was an understanding of where I'd be someday if I just stuck to my guns and continued to write daily. I knew I had to be adamant, disciplined, about it.
“It wasn't really an image, but more my guiding light,” he added. “It was my future light that was guiding me through the problems and issues I experienced all those years ago. I'd see him almost every day, and – if things got really bad – that's when I'd think they weren't important. I needed to keep focused, keep writing. That's what really mattered.”
Thurber, 55, now is thrilled to say his first book – entitled “Paperboy: A Dysfunctional Novel” – will be released by Casperian Books LLC in Sacramento, Calif. on Sunday, May 1. He's not as excited about having a feature composed about him, or answering queries about how he came to write this 262-page, 157-chapter book on reality.
“Oh, I'm pretty much a loner, have been my whole life,” he noted. “My wife, Colleen, looked at me when we found out and said, 'You're not excited.' I am, but I don't like any focus on me. The way I look at it, the work is important, not me.
“Remember the Wizard of Oz, standing behind the curtain? That's me,” he added. “That's my style. I like to be behind the scenes. I can be funny at times, but I like being in the background.”
Fact is, Thurber has captured over 40 awards and citations for several of his 300 short stories, and even has gleaned the prestigious Barry Hannah Fiction Prize. He claimed his first agent – whose name he chose not to reveal – fell in love with those tales.
“I had published close to 200 short stories by then, 2003, and he thought he could sell a book of those stories, but wanted a novel to go with it,” Thurber stated. “He explained the publishers wouldn't go for it without a novel, that nobody wanted to buy a book of short stories by an unknown author, so I wrote it. I gave him the first draft, and he thought the writing was great, but the story was too dark.
“He then suggested about 12 ways to shape it into a more conventional novel, and said publishers don't like stories about dysfunction,” he continued. “That's not how I felt, so we parted ways. In fiction, you're trying to tell some very basic human truths. I found Jack Scovil, my current agent and an outstanding man.
“He read my manuscript, and called me the next afternoon; this was in 2004. He said, 'I love it! I think I can sell it!'”
That dream has come to fruition, and Susan Henderson, author of “Up from the Blue,” described “Paperboy” this way:
“It's 1969, and the entire nation is waiting for the United States to win the space race and put the first man on the moon. Meanwhile, 14-year-old Jack Fisher – malnourished and battered, abandoned by his father, neglected by his mother, manipulated by his older sister, harangued by his boss and shortchanged by customers – is delivering newspapers in downtown Pawtucket. (He's) trying to keep his family from self-destructing completely.
“As the whole world holds its breath to see what will become of the Apollo 11 astronauts, Jack clings to his daily mantra, 'Things will get better.' But in this poignant debut novel by award-winning short story writer Bob Thurber, things do not get better; they get drastically worse, at space-age speed.
“(He's) a masterful wordsmith, driving you into the undiscovered corners of the heart with insight and courage.”
Thurber promised the novel wasn't about his life, but does contain similarities.
Born in May 1955, he grew up in a very poor family residing on lower Broadway. His mother had been a teen-ager when she had, first, his sister, then Thurber, whose last names should be Russe. Their mom gave them her last name; the kids never knew their biological dad.
“Growing up the way I did, there's no way I should have become any kind of decent person,” he offered. “I'm not Jack. This is a book about lost children, (those) who are neglected, abused by parents or other adults, teachers or others in society. They end up totally lost.
“A kid like me, I should've been a drug addict, alcoholic, thief, a miserable human being, but I'm none of those things.”
He then picked up his book and thumbed to Chapter 32.
“Things I used to get hit for: Talking back, being 'smart,' acting stupid, not giving an answer the first time,” he mentioned. “Even when I was sick, I'd get hit. You've got to remember, my mom would put on this big front, dressing us up for church and trying to present us as the 'Leave it to Beaver' type family. When we got home, there wouldn't be a bottle of milk in the house.
“My mother was very abusive – psychologically, physically. She was a nervous wreck, and that's what poverty does to you. You didn't know if you were going to be living on the street the following week. I'd go to school wearing my sister's shirt. I remember once, when I was really sick and suffered diarrhea, she dragged me out of bed and into the bathroom, then whacked me upside the head.
“You'd open your mouth, and the next thing you knew, you'd get slapped. You've got to realize, she had it tough, too. It was no picnic, and I couldn't wait to grow up, get away from the belts, extension cords, etc.”
Before his freshman year at Tolman High, he decided to help the family and become a paperboy for the Pawtucket Evening Times. He said he delivered 50-70 papers to homes from Roosevelt Avenue to Dexter Street, and the many side roads in between.
“My first lessons I learned outside the home and school was on my paper route; that's where I learned about the real world,” he revealed. “I was 13-14, and I'd be in people's kitchens, waiting to get paid. I'd see what they were having for supper.
“Some people asked me if I could come back in two weeks because they didn't have money. That's when downtown was pretty much a ghetto. I was losing customers because they'd move out. Remember, this was 1969.”
Thurber graduated from Tolman in 1973, but didn't attend college. He instead went to work at the old Newport Creamery on Pawtucket Avenue, starting as a dishwasher, then working his way up to assistant manager.
“I was a troubleshooter for the company,” he grinned. “I was the guy the bosses put in a restaurant for six weeks or so to straighten out any problems inside. I did become a top-notch assistant, and I was prepared to run my own store.
“I was invited by the other store managers to a Providence Reds hockey game, and – based on what I saw – I thought, 'You know what? Management isn't for me!'”
He began collecting unemployment, or working odd jobs as a short-order cook and the like. When he wasn't, he adored keeping a journal, something he started doing immediately after his beloved grandmother, Frieda (Stricker) Thurber, died.
“That angst and confusion you have as a youngster and teen, you remember the crazy thoughts you had,” he noted. “I enjoyed writing. I used to write skits about 'Crazy Guggenheim' and 'Joe the Bartender' from the 'Jackie Gleason Show.' I'd act them out, and the kids would laugh like heck.
“My teen-age years were slightly better because my mom realized she couldn't hit me,” he continued. “I remember once, she went to strike me and I grabbed her arm. She said, 'Let go. You're hurting me.' I felt bad about holding her; I used to give her money from the route.
“When I was 19, I decided I was going to be a writer, and my plan was to get a journalism degree, but then I got married. I divorced 18 months later. Once again, I went back to working crap jobs. I was living on the East Side (of Providence) in a single room, and again went to work as a short-order cook just to pay expenses.”
Thurber stuck with it, and – later – began composing short stories. Life hasn't been the same since, and for, most of it, he's truly thankful. He credits wife Colleen for that.
Amazing thing is, he had spent years at Tolman with her, but the two never had crossed paths.
“I went to watch a Celtics' game at a friend's house in 1980, and it was Colleen's cousin's,” he laughed. “She was visiting from Pennsylvania, and she had been widowed at a very young age. Later that night, we went dancing, and we spent the night talking. I knew right away she was something really special.”
The two married, and had a son named Sam. He's now 23 and a rather talented guitarist.
“He's a good boy, a great kid,” Thurber said with pride. “He even helped me with the cover design on the front of the book. He was home-schooled and taught himself how to play.
“They're very respectful of what I do,” he added. “Colleen was another who, early on in our relationship, said I'd be successful. She always knew my writing came first. Everyone knows what a selfish a------ I can be, but writing means the world to me. If I don't write, I feel like I'm not doing my job.”
On the sad side, Thurber, slow but sure, is losing his eyesight. One night about six years ago, he noticed he had a blind spot in his left eye.
“I closed my right eye, and half the screen was gone,” he mentioned. “I went to the R.I. Eye Institute in Providence, and the doctor told me I had wet macular degeneration. At that point, I thought I could deal because I could still see out of my right eye. My left eye, all the central vision now is gone. I can only see peripherally.”
He underwent laser surgery in 2007, which stopped the degeneration for a couple of years, but now he's having problems with the other.
“I have a blind spot due to leakage, and that was because I took steroids to fight off another ailment,” he said. “The doctors tell me they don't know, that sometimes degeneration can speed up, but I think they do know. Ninety percent of all blindness is from WMD.”
As for “Paperboy,” he admitted each character is dysfunctional.
“But it all goes back to the question 'What's considered normal?'” he asked. “We're all dysfunctional to some degree: The Little League coach who's a pedophile, the priest who fondles boys. It's a messy world out there, and the novel depicts a young boy coming of age. He learns the world is not a very kind place, especially when you're poor.
“He comes up against some very harsh realities,” he added. “A dysfunctional, neglectful mother, an emotionally-disturbed sister. If there's a similarity to my life in it, it's a loving, nurturing grandmother. She was much more a nurturer than my mom.
“Another one, it's based in Pawtucket. I knew Pawtucket well, and what was happening in 1969. I delivered The Times there. I remember spitting off the Main Street bridge, we all did that. When I was writing, I pictured the river, the Slater Mill, the Times building, Dexter Street and Roosevelt Ave. Back then, it was really run down.
“It all occurs in the summer of '69. The end of the decade, which was tumultuous culturally, socially, economically, but it also was the end of hope. We lost John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the guys who were supposed to help us all. The whole nation was focused on the moon landing, and everyone seemed to think that would save us.
“Meanwhile, people in Pawtucket, and across the country, were living in poverty, had hard-scrabbled lives. Jack's all excited about man stepping on the moon, like it would change everything.”
He read one of the final chapters regarding Jack's composition about Neil Armstrong's historical footprint, and others coming from Buzz Aldrin. He spoke about how those footprints, because there's no erosion, wind or rain, would last for 10 million years.
“Part of this novel's dysfunction is his digressions; it doesn't go where the reader expects it to,” he said. “I'm happy with it. I'll tell you, I edited the crap out of it. The book the publishers originally accepted was 50,000 words, and I decided to add about 30,000 to it, so it's better than the original. When I saw the galleys, and that it was 262 pages, I was, like, Whoa! I thought it was going to be thin, but it's got some meat on it.”
When asked if he still sees that old laughing man in his head, he chuckled, “No, because I feel like I'm here. Wow! I'm him!”