The Next Great Paulie Fink is a confusing story. Our main character is Caitlyn, who, having moved with her mother from upstate New York to Mitchell, Vermont, is starting 7th Grade at a small rural school. The school is located in an old mansion–instead of a typical school building. All grades are housed in the same building since it’s such a small town. There are only 10 other students in Caitlyn’s entire 7th grade class. On the first day of school the other students discover that not only do they have a NEW student (Caitlyn), one of their classmates (Paulie Fink) has NOT returned this year. No one knows why. Her classmates regale Caitlyn with stories about Paulie and his antics in the classroom and somehow the students decide it would be a good idea to hold a reality TV-like contest to choose the “Next Great Paulie Fink.” Inexplicably, they choose Caitlyn to be in charge of the competition. She proceeds to set “challenges” for the class in which they must display specific aspects of Paulie’s personality, with one student being eliminated after each challenge.
Sound weird? It is. The story is confusing and so is the structure of the book. The story is told through a mishmash of voices, sometimes Caitlyn in the present, sometimes various students in the class through a supposed ‘interview’ Caitlyn conducted after the completion of their competition, and sometimes through emails from teachers or the Principal.
This book frustrates me for a number of reasons: (1) I almost chucked it in the Didn’t Finish pile because the story is organized so poorly and I couldn’t get a handle on any of the characters OR the actual plot for about the first 100 pages; (2) all the kids’ voices sound very similar so it’s hard to know who’s talking unless you pay attention the structure of the page, or the font of the words; (3) The premise is patently ridiculous–the idea that in a town so small (852 people) that there are only 11 students in the 7th Grade (the highest grade in the school so far) the kids would NOT know that Paulie–and presumably his family–has left over the summer is laughable; and (4) Caitlyn’s story has so much potential when she starts speaking a little more about her behavior in her previous middle school that it irritates me it was not fleshed out and made the focal point of the book.
We find out more about Caitlyn after slogging through the first 100 pages. We discover that when she started middle school last year she found herself in unfamiliar territory. She looked for a way to navigate the social situation that develops in that environment. She determined that the best way to do so was to belong to a group. This meant that she was consistently cruel to one specific girl (Anna) in order to ally herself with a larger group to avoid being in Anna’s social position. At the Mitchell School Caitlyn begins to consider her behavior toward Anna in a different light. The reader has access to the insecurity and abject fear that often motivates the hurtful, bullying behavior of individuals.
I watched the way she turned her locker dial slowly, hoping no one would notice that she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Everything she did wrong reassured me. I mean, maybe I didn’t know how to be…but at least I knew more than Anna did.
I guess I wanted her to know that, too. Because I started doing things. Maybe I’d get my friends to stare at her. …We’d keep our eyes on her until she looked up. Then we’d laugh. Not because she was doing anything funny, but because we wanted her to know she was someone people laughed at.
This story is one with which many middle school readers can identify: yes, I have ugly thoughts sometimes but I can choose how I behave toward other people. Unfortunately, this story is left in bits and pieces around the ridiculous Paulie Fink contest.
Don’t get me wrong, the Paulie Fink story could absolutely work on its own as a light, fun, silly story. But Caitlyn’s story and the Paulie Fink story just don’t go together. The author never succeeds in weaving all the disparate elements of the book into any kind of cohesive narrative. Sadly, The Next Great Paulie Fink is a confusing–and consequently irritating–jumble of ideas and images that never really organize themselves into the kind of story I expect from Ali Benjamin. I will not be recommending this one to readers of any age.