For an eighth grader Dwayne Kleber has a lot of stuff going on. His teacher is one of only three at his school who are white and a few of his classmates are trying to run her off. Nonetheless, Dwayne approaches her with an important question: he wants to write a book, but can’t decide what to write about.
That evening at home, Dwayne finds out his Mom, who is pregnant, is leaving her job. Dwayne and his brother are told by their Dad that, since they are fourteen now, they have seven days to find a job and come home with fifteen dollars a week or they can sleep on a park bench. Contrasted with coming of age or identity crisis stories often aimed at teen readers, I, Dwayne Kleber tells the story of what Dwayne decides to do to meet this financial obligation and the consequences of his decision.
The framework is simple, covering thirteen days in Dwayne’s life, but this is not “journal” writing. Mr. Connor delivers this short novel in a straightforward style known as Realistic Fiction, with a good balance of description, dialogue, and action scenes. Our narrator is honest and matter-of-fact, as illustrated in this conversation Dwayne has with his teacher: “What subject do you know more about? Ask your own self the question.” “OK, but I want white people to buy the book too.” “Don’t worry about who’s buying it. First get it written,” she said. So I decided to write a book about me and my problems and Reggie’s problems. A true book.
Reggie and Dwayne are twins, in the same class together for the first time since second grade. Even though “he can’t even write a simple, declarative sentence,” Reggie gets a lot of attention being a drummer in a band. Dwayne wants his own sense of accomplishment but the boys have very different styles when it comes to making and keeping commitments. After the orders from his father are laid down, Dwayne goes straight out to look for a job. He gets home to find his brother in bed, upset that working a job will interfere with his playing in a band. Reggie hasn’t even started to look.
Dwayne quickly lands a job delivering newspapers but is concerned about netting fifteen dollars a week. “Well, there’s a rule that says only one paperboy to a route,” he tells his father. “But I could probably get away with serving two routes if Reggie signed up for the other one.” The phrase “probably get away with” is where the plot thickens.
Originally published in June 1970, the story describes life in a lower middle class family with strict but loving parents. In addition to Dwayne’s family and teacher, we also meet Junior, who has the route Dwayne is taking over, Lester, the branch captain of distribution, and Mr. Dawson, who runs the territory of North Philadelphia for the newspaper; there is also Reggie’s friend Ollie, who is trying to get into a gang.
At just 128 pages in paperback, this Young Adult novel packs in several themes, from following rules and respecting adults to brotherly competition to living in a segregated society, with urban violence, teen gangs, and the Vietnam War also covered in varying degrees. There is as much profanity as one would expect in Realistic Fiction and this does not detract from the novel’s value. For those seeking Discussable Questions or simply Plenty to Think about Afterward, I, Dwayne Kleber has a lot of stuff going on. This book is rated five stars.