Every once in a while, I get really lucky when buying used books. Often, this happens when I'm travelling and, in need of something to read, I wander into a used book store with no specific purchase in mind. When I was a kid, my family and I were away somewhere, and I happened upon Joe David Brown's Paper Moon – I think it was being sold for a dollar or something. The reason I can't remember where I bought it, though, is because all my memories of reading the book are of me being in a car, driving through a Depression-era landscape. Clearly, this never happened, but the story took such hold of me while I was reading it that it invaded my memories, totally blocking out everything else.
Paper Moon was originally titled Addie Pray, but after the movie came out they rereleased the novel under the new title, which I like better. Addie Pray is a good title insofar as it introduces you to the narrator and main character of the story, but it seems too absolute about the relationship of the characters, and seems less ephemeral. Paper Moon, on the other hand, introduces you to a more interesting story – one of big dreams that may or may not be attainable, an era of necessary imitation (the real thing just cost too much) and the idea of illusions, which are the foundation of every good scam.
And Paper Moon starts with Addie, who is just a little girl despite her assured voice, telling the story of how her mother was killed in a car accident with another man. It isn't really a sad story, though, at least not the way Addie tells it. Really, she's quite matter of fact about the whole thing. It's implied that her mother was a prostitute, and that Moses "Long Boy" Pray may be her father, since he was once a customer of her mother's. He denies this, but is still charged with driving her across Alabama to her aunt's house. Before setting out, Long Boy talks the brother of the man who was driving the car in which Addie's mom was killed (still following?) to give him $200 for Addie's care on the road. That is a lot of money, but Long Boy gets it because he is rather persuasive.
Addie, though, overhears the conversation and later demands the money. Well, Long Boy has spent most of it, so he promises to raise the money along the way to her aunt's. First stop, Bible scam. The novel is full of descriptions of Long Boy's scams, but this is really the first one Addie witnesses. This is his genius: He looks up women who have been recently widowed and goes to their homes, pretending to be a specialty Bible salesmen from whom their late husband has ordered a personalized Bible. Naturally, they're caught of guard and, in their grief, he is able to get quite a bit out of them for the Bible. Addie gets in on the scam by pretending to be his daughter and they become quite a lucrative pair.
But, then they meet Miss Trixie Delight, a stripper who quickly winds Long Boy around her finger. Addie is furious when she finds out that, not only is Long Boy directing his attention at Miss Trixie instead of at her, but has also spent all their money on a new car to impress her with. Addie, who is beyond precocious, devises a scheme to get rid of Miss Trixie, thereby getting Long Boy all to herself again.
Honestly, this book is hilarious. I've heard of Addie being compared to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think her voice is much closer to Baby's in Lullabies for Little Criminals. Scout was a pretty good little girl, all things considered, and Addie is so mischievous and, in a strange way, totally suited to the small-scale crime that Long Boy has introduced her to that she kind of crackles with life on the page. Brown's dialogue is so good in this story because he lets Addie talk like a child, but in a way that shows she's a child who has spent most of her life with rather disreputable adults.
In a lot of ways, this is a strange sort of love story. Not, I should say, in a Lolita sort of way, but in a familial way. Addie loves Long Boy because she wants to believe he's her father, and because he's fun, and because he kind of encourages her to get into trouble. On the flip side, Long Boy loves Addie in a way because, despite his denials, he seems to want to be her father. I get the sense that he likes the weight of that responsibility – even if it's only so he can justify his scams to himself. He and Addie also make a great crime duo, which is just fun to read about.
Paper Moon is a story about life on the road, and the strangely symbiotic that can develop between people who come to rely on one another. Addie and Long Boy are each other's family, even if they can't prove there's a biological link, and in the late 1920s, when the Depression is beating people down, their relationship gives them a kind of buoyancy.
by Joe David Brown
First published (as Addie Pray) in 1971 (cover image from Four Walls Eight Windows edition)