Ali Benjamin’s The Next Great Paulie Fink kicks things off by employing my favorite narrative device: in medias res storytelling. Newcomer and de facto narrator Caitlyn Breen is conducting the first of many interviews for “The Search for the Next Great Paulie Fink,” a reality show-style competition the importance of which a new reader can scarcely grasp.
But that’s not where our story really begins.
Caitlyn herself reflects on the tale’s true genesis—the show’s premiere episode if you will. Was it back in June when her mom broke the news of their move to Vermont? Was it their arrival in the small, dingy town of Mitchell? Perhaps it was her first glimpse of “the huge wooden house with broken shudders, peeling paint, and a tangle of weedy vines snaking up the exterior” that serves as the Mitchell School, complete with its strikingly surreal Good Day Bell.
However, both Caitlyn and the reader would likely agree that the true starting point was a knock on a classroom door and the ensuing buzz of excitement that pulsed through its ten young occupants. It was the collective look of anticipation that quickly turned to disappointment. It was “[d]ifferent kids, different sizes, different shades, different styles” all staring directly at her, the unexpected new kid.
The novel truly begins as the entirety of the Mitchell School’s seventh-grade class comes to the realization that, whoever she may be, Caitlyn is clearly not their beloved Paulie Fink.