I knew Vinnie since the first grade, and even I never thought he had enough ill force within him to pull this. I guess I’m partially to blame after the Missouri night when he stopped by for a friendly chat and a few drinks to “escape that humidity and those bugs.” Of course, I know he just wanted to talk again, and we would. He talked about possibly becoming a history teacher at his old school (which made him nauseous), and I talked about my same attempts to teach literature there (which made me anxious). I’d tell him what’s going on in the world, and he would listen under the condition that we’d later share already told stories of a youth reading together what no one else let us read.
“And then,” he grinned, preparing for the big finish, “I threw the book at her feet and shouted, ‘I don’t care if I get in trouble, but this is the most boringest book I ever read!’”
We both closed our eyes and laughed at the shared vision of Mrs. Pace’s wide eyes after seeing the recently banned Catcher in the Rye slammed at her feet. “Says the history teacher and author of ‘I’m Troubled and Nothing Happens,” I spoke softly, cheeks barely containing my smile.
I’m surprised someone who had been talking all night could laugh as hard as he did. I guess he too realized that Hindered was not exactly fast-paced and fun. He still managed to chuckle out quickly, “I think it’s ok now, if that helps! I was too young when I read it!”
“Face it, Vinnie… you would have never read that book then if someone hadn’t called the school to ban it!”
His blue eyes were somewhere else while he hooted at my joke. “I guess it was pretty smart of Salinger to get it banned then!”
* * * * * * * * *
Two days later, I got a letter from him saying I should open his note at the town meeting that was scheduled yesterday for today. That should have tipped me off, but I still didn’t know what to do when I arrived through my old grade school’s automatic doors into the gym and saw him, impatiently waiting for the meeting to begin, behind a podium and in front of a huge red sign blaring, “Protect Our Children: Ban Vinnie Palladino.”
The fully packed musty hall and sudden pressure placed on me almost caused me to forget the letter. Gathering the exploded inner pieces within me, I opened it as gently as I could with my shaking hands.
You got me thinking yesterday about how my book needs publicity. Time for an experiment and a little payback. P.S.: Kids these days know too much about fake I.D.s
At this point, I could only stand in the hallway and gawk at his smiling, greeting face making small talk amongst the locals. But, at exactly 12, he asked for the men and women of this fair town to seat themselves and their children, so I had to join them.
“People of Republic, Missouri: Who is Vincent Palladino? If you don’t know, you’re either ignoring him out of fear, or don’t know exactly what great calamity has visited this world in the latest perversion of the written word.”
Seeing the attention of every citizen tighten, he carefully adjusted the grey hair he had since birth. “Well, either way, you all have a problem now!” he continued, as I read, “Lecture by Professor Vincent Hill,” under the loud sign. I knew exactly what his speech would be like from that.
“Yes, Republic has once again been burdened! Now, understand that I deeply despise becoming the bearer of bad news to this fair land, especially when it comes in the form of a book. I love books. Don’t you? Any time with a book is the most wonderful thing I could ask for, especially when in the company of Chaucer’s proficient diction or Carle’s eternal hegemony of semblances.”
He had lost them for a second with the big words; I knew this pleased him. “But it took me a while to appreciate these masterworks, years of study and growing to cultivate my mind properly. Not to pick up a book, though- I could do that since I was a child. You all could. Not everyone can understand the complexities behind books at the beginning, though they can sure try to. And I can assure you right now that any member of this school to read Hindered would not be fully prepared for the true message it brings.”
“But who’s to say kids can’t try? Well, they certainly can, if they want to take that first step into a world beyond their educations and recognition. The reason is I’ve seen what has happened to other kids that see the story’s villain explain his reasoning, and therefore sympathize with the notion that evil is necessary to create good. The next thing you know, the kid moves from simple arguments with parents to pulling tricks and dangerous pranks all under the notion of ‘creating good.’ We all know that’s just their flimsy excuse for causing trouble, but they won’t. And what if they grow up with that? Can you imagine a gang- a whole neighborhood- overflowing with delinquents spreading graffiti and sex wherever they please under a banner of ‘good’? Just because no one could teach them better?”
The kids seemed to perk up at that ‘s’ word sooner than some parents could cover their ears. One family was leaving, which became more than enough to trigger fierceness in Vinnie.
“See that family over there, leaving because I spoke the truth! Friends, let it be known that no matter how vulgar I may seem, I act so to warn you that this book becomes far, far worse in the hands of the ignorant! They may not know it, but it’s their problem too!”
They seem to know now, as they sat down while Vinnie continued.
“Yes, I’ve seen this books power, and the worst thing it has done is absorb them! I’ve seen them ignoring chores, even forgetting eating, in an effort to punish themselves (and everyone else) and become like the villain of the story! The villain! Friends, no decent writer could make a villain so appealing if not to seduce someone to his side. We can resist, and therefore it’s our duty to protect those who can’t!”
One woman shouted from the middle, “Where’s your proof?”
I tightened myself in sympathy. Debates were not Vinnie’s thing. Fortunately, though, quick thinking was, and Vinnie gave the look of true concern to her.
“I cannot say in truthfulness that I have seen any of this. I refuse to lie to such decent people. However, in only stands to reason that they will, for that’s the actions of the children in this book. Children, as any good parent knows, imitate those they look up to or admire, and they seem to admire characters their age in books for reasons unknown to me.”
His lies had become more easily blended in with the truth since high school. I liked that. I hate it when he lies to me.
“But since I know you are all wonderful parents, I’m going to ask you directly: would you like to know what exactly they talk about in this book? They talk about implied sex. They talk about implied despair. They talk about giving away both as freely as you please! What if your son or daughter became one of them!”
The woman in front of me fainted. An elder representative of the crowd stood up and loudly announced, “We’ve got a problem!”
“That’s right sir, we do!” shouted Vinnie as he pulled the megaphone from the podium. What he didn’t expect was for the bolts attached to it and the top of the podium to come with it. “What do we got?” he inquired to the stiff lady in front.
“Who here has a problem!?”
“WE DO!” said the thundering audience, save myself.
“Who’s gotta take care of it!?”
“Who’s got a problem!?”
“Yes we do! Now, if you permit me, I’d like to go off of my notes here,” he said, beginning a pace back and forth. Only I knew he was lying, given away by a quick scratch behind the ear. “I need to determine whether the mark of Hindered has been here or not. Has there been any explicit… graffiti in this town as of late?”
A muffled gasp and muttering emerged as they remembered the drawing underneath the bridge made last night.
“Has there been any dangerous music coming from anyone’s radio.”
More mutterings amongst them, worried glances.
“What about the children? Have they been saying things like… like ‘Your god is my devil?’”
A more panicked response erupted from the audience, and little Billy’s mom looked at him in both terror and shame. I recognized Billy because I saw Vinnie giving him five bucks yesterday for a reason now known to me.
“Aha! And how about, ‘Parents caused all this.’!”
Chaos had broken loose and was bouncing off of each mother and father in the gym. There was no need for him to shout, “So as you all know, we have… a problem! Thank you and good day!” as no one could hear him. I didn’t see him disappear backstage amid all of the confusion.
* * * * * * * * *
A concerned talk with him later revealed his plan to use the publicity gained by the town’s guaranteed banning of the book to draw national attention. The masterstroke would come from Vinnie Palladino giving a tremendous speech in its defense, making the town the country’s villain. I protested, of course, but I knew I didn’t have the skills necessary to change the hamlet’s mind. I was never loud enough, and everything would happen too quickly.
The town banned the book, and Vinnie got possibly two news articles about it buried deep in somebody else’s paper. The ban lasted, but became practically nonexistent for want of care within a day. I think I know why too- the good guys won a long time ago. Book banning became a silly practice a while ago, and wouldn’t last even in a silly town like this that switched between moral panics as easily as you please. Of all the towns, Vinnie had to choose the one ostracized from everyone as the nuts in fancy houses. The school library here still stacks Hindered in the creaky cubicle underneath the computer to this day.
I wanted to talk to Vinnie about this until I ran into him again three days after the second reporter left. I think I was going to confront him, but what I saw changed that. He had the gym to himself that night; he took advantage of this by blasting a rock song (I think ‘Dancing With Myself’) through his stereo. The chairs were arranged for any large crowd that just happened to drop in, but the man was already giving a speech to his perfect audience. The megaphone tight in his hand, he declared himself to the dim lights.
“For I was once a child, like the ones you so selflessly shield, in love with words spoken and written. No matter what books the school chose, I would read them if they were thrown to a rainy curb by an authority. And I learned from those books that censorship would lock you in your own little world, away from the risks and pains integral to the human experience. I know I’m alone when I say this, but I believe that no book should be banned. We need to end censorship now.”
“For as John Stuart Mill said, ‘If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind…’”
I became his only audience member that night, captivated by the pure joy in his eyes, a joy that knew no time or place. As much as he hated his old school, I realized he was not as bitter as I originally thought him to be. I think he actually found inner peace before I did. So we each took a trip back to his childhood through that dead rock ‘n roll, back to a simpler time when things were darker, to dance with the past that could have been ours.