Five Novels, by Daniel Pinkwater
Let's say you're in high school. Worse yet, let's say you're in junior high school. The other kids mostly ignore you, and occasionally pick on you. The teachers are about the same. The schoolwork is tedious, and Gym is a nightmare. There seems to have been some sort of terrible mixup; you're the only human in a school full of Martians, or perhaps the other way around.
But you have a secret--a message in a bottle, a communique from your fellow aliens outside your prison. There's hope--there are others; weirdos like you. You've discovered the novels of Daniel Pinkwater.
Who?Pinkwater's a prolific writer and occasional illustrator, and has cranked out dozens of children's books, a couple dozen Young Adult novels, numerous books-on-tape, a couple essay collections, a dog-training guide, an adult novel, and at least one comic strip collection in the last 30 years. 5 Novels is a collection of his work from the early '80s. How they were picked I have no idea. The works in question are: Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars; Slaves of Spiegel; The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death; The Last Guru; and Young Adult Novel. There's not much to say about the collection itself: it's a decently bound trade paperback. The foreword by Jules Feiffer is charming, but not particularly insightful, and not quite two pages long. The variation in fonts among the books suggests that very little alteration was done from the original printings before sending the collection to press.
The books are aimed at teenagers, but that's certainly not their only audience. I read Young Adult Novel to a group of 20 30-ish Boston geeks earlier this month, and they loved it and clamored for more. If the portrait at the beginning of this piece is familiar from any point in your life, I think you'll get something out of Pinkwater now.
ThemesThe most evident thing about Pinkwater's writing is the goofy sense of humor, as one can guess from a glance at the titles. Much of his humor derives from a childlike delight in inherently absurd objects, such as avocados. Bizzarre place names or background characters, like the town of Hogboro or the McTavish's Pickleburgers fast food chain often will reoccur from book to book. The Hoboken Chicken Emergencyclopedia is an attempt by a fan to to catalogue these references, along with everything else mentioned in Pinkwater's book.
Another source of humor is absurd justapositions of the fantastic and mundane, such as the marauding space pirates who invariably wear plaid sportscoats and white plastic shoes. A third vein is the puncturing of authority.
Adults in Pinkwater's world are--at best--pretentious buffoons. In Alan Mendelsohn, for example, first the occult bookseller Samuel Klugarsh, then the Venusian motorcyclist Clarence Yojimbo, and then the astral traveller Lance Hergeschleimer are first admired by the story's heroes, but soon prove less clever, honest, and resourceful than themselves. Teachers are overbearing petty tyrants, bored clock-punchers, or raving lunatics. Parents pursue their own petty obsessions in blithe ignorance of their children's lives. They appear in these books as inert and mostly useless creatures, like enormous ambulatory vegetables endowed with the authority to set bedtimes, but lacking the wit to effectively enforce them.
The ideal Pinkwater novel would go like this: short, fat kid of above-average but not exceptional intelligence is lonely, picked-on, and bored at high school. He makes friends with a somewhat more flamboyant and self-confident peer, and together they have adventures that discover a more strange, beautiful and exciting world than had previously been revealed to them. This is a composite picture, and most of his books don't have all those exact elements, but these are recurring themes.
Girls are generally conspicuously absent from this picture, with Rat, the James Dean-obsessed punk rocker of the Snarkout books (who our heroes find immensely intimidating) a notable exception. The important relationships are male friendships.
Dangers in Pinkwater's world come from the familiar, not the strange. Characters may be beaten-up or humiliated by their classmates, but the threats of the outside world are always mild by comparison. The master criminal in The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death immerses his enemies in vats of warm egg fu yung or forces them to watch old German comedy reels. The interdimensional tyrants Mannie, Moe, and Jack in Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars administer kicks in the tush to those who oppose them. The teenage protaganists prowl the streets of the city's seedier districts late at night sometimes with a little nervousness, but never any real sense of danger.
Virtually all Pinkwater characters have their distinctive obsessions, which they carry to the point of mania: collecting comic books, building model ships, making home movies, macrobiotic cooking, fleegix appreciation (fleegix is kinda like hot chocolate, and immensely popular on the planet of Waka-Waka), or snarking out (sneaking out to attend the midnight double bill at the Snark theater).
Place is very important to Pinkwater, and his Chicago upbringing suffuses the way he writes about it. Just as his characters are in conflict with the blowdried, athletic and suntanned culture around them, so they seek out landscapes that offer escape from the strip mall and housing development architecture that reflects that culture. They find them in the older, grittier city of brick buildings and narrow, twisting streets that lies beneath and surrounded by the shinier metropolis that sprung up around it. In Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, the narrator, Leonard Neeble, describes a return to his old neighborhood in Hogboro after having moved out to the suburb of West Kangaroo Park.
We stopped and looked in the window of the fish store. All the fish were lying dead on the crushed ice, except some crabs who were feebly waving their claws around. It smelled good. It was a good fish store. Everything was fresh. There was seaweed packed between some of the fish. People in West Kangaroo Park must think that fish came out of the sea frozen and packed in little square boxes.
The stories can be read as fables about the liberating power of fantasy. The characters excape from a world of deadening tedium and threat into one of excitement where they are included and admired, which eventually allows them to cope better with the mundane world
I wouldn't go too far with that, though. Pinkwater shows a laudable aversion for anything smacking of preachiness or "relevance." Here's the raciest passage from the book: "Rat was pretty outspoken. She had a lot of things to say about James Dean and the things she would have been willing to do with him and with no one else, if only he had not died. Winston and I got the impression that Rat knew a lot more about sex than we did, so we kept off the subject in order not to appear ignorant."
Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars
An excellent introduction to Pinkwater's work. Leonard Neeble's parents move from their city apartment to a ranch house in the suburbs, and Neeble finds himself at Bat Masterson Jurnior High School, where "'all you have to do is not look like everybody else, and you're instant garbage.'" He falls in with Alan Mendelsohn, an abrasive and geeky boy from the Bronx, with the odd habit of telling random people that he's actually a Martian. After a visit to an occult bookstore, they learn the secrets of mind control, but after a day of giving teachers uncontrollable cigarette joneses and making classmates trip over their own feet, they soon get bored and move on to interdimensional travel. The inhabitants of the first other dimension they visit turn out to be superstitious and cowardly, and Leonard and Alan able to rescue them from the dominion of the dread bandits Manny, Moe, and Jack (why this isn't trademark infringement, I have no idea).
Slaves of Spiegel
A short epistolary novel, featuring the dread Speigellian space pirates of Fat Men from Space, who roam the galaxy in search of junkfood. This book depends entirely on humor, with no memorable characters or emotional weight, and seems aimed at rather younger readers than the other four. Not actually painful to read, but not recommended.
The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death
Walter Gant and Winston Bongo spend their nights sneaking out of their houses to go to the Snark theater double-bill, in an attempt to escape the crushing tedium of Genghis Kahn High School, keeping scrupulous tally of successful Snarkouts, both joint and solo. One night they meet Bentley Saunders Harrison Matthews ("You can call me Rat."), a student at nearby George Armstrong Custer High School who has also independently invented the sport, and are drawn into the mystery of her kidnapped uncle, the mad scientist Flipping Hades Terwilliger, who appears to have been kidnapped by the archcriminal Wallace Nussbaum. Sherlock Holmes fans will enjoy the large number of Holmes references. Funny and evocative.
The Last Guru
Another fairly weak one. Harold Platz, a 13-year-old boy, becomes, through a series of improbable stock market investments, one of the richest people in the world, and is discovered to be the reincarnated founder ot the Silly Hat Sect, which appears to be loosely based on Tibetan Buddhism. The primary purpose of the book seems to make fun of the American New Age movement, which was still a fish in a barrel last time I checked.
Young Adult Novel
The Wild Dada Ducks--Charlie the Cat, Captain Colossal, Igor, the Indiana Zephyr, and the Honorable Venustiano Carranza (President of Mexico)--are a group of students who attempt to resurrect the Dada art movement at Himmler High school. Young Adult Novel has a very different feel to it than Pinkwater's other High School novels. There are no elements of fantasy or science fiction--the story takes place entirely on or near the Himmler campus. Rather than trying to escape the High School experience, the Wild Dada Ducks attempt to transform it through will and creativity. Their success in doing so is...limited, but the endeavor is one of the funniest damn things I've ever read.
Avocado of Death has a sequel: The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror, which is very good. Pinkwater denies rumors of a third volume, I Snarked with a Zombie.
Young Adult Novel had a sequel called Dead End Dada. The two were also published together, along with an excerpt from the proposed third volume, The Dada Boys in Collich, under the title Young Adults. Both books are extremely out of print. Any leads on obtaining them would be vastly appreciated.
Pinkwater has a semi-official web site, and is a remarkably prompt correspondent.
As a small child, I was often read The Blue Moose by my parents. Many years later, I realized that it was also by Pinkwater. I recommend it highly. Also recommended is Lizard Music.
- Is Osgood Sigerson actually Walter Galt's father?
- Would it be appropriate to call Pinkwater's books "subversive?" Why or why not?
- Discuss the role of food in Pinkwater's books. Special emphasis may be payed to the roles of raisin toast and kosher salami. In what light is vegetarianism presented?
- Discuss the role of Judaism in Pinkwater's books.
- Authenticity is often a concern of Pinkwater's characters, as in the fish store scene quoted above. What constitutes authenticity for them?
- Compare and contrast Pinkwater's approach to humor with that of Woody Allen, Douglas Adams, and Stanislaw Lem.