Saturday, March 29, 2008

Daniel Manus Pinkwater

Fat Men From Space
by Daniel Manus Pinkwater
Recommended Age: 10+

Here's a cute little story about a boy who gets a filling in his tooth that can receive radio signals. Before he knows it, he's picking up transmissions from outer space warning of an invasion of Earth by fat men in tweed sport jackets and knit ties, who first eat all the junk food on earth, then intend to enslave the human race to make more junk food.

Pinkwater's stories are very cute, but they don't have the narrative strength of Roald Dahl or other authors in this line. They just don't hold together somehow. My thought is that they don't really seem to be stories; the author just lays out a cute scenario and an amusing chain of events, but there really isn't a struggle from Point A to Point B, a crisis, a conflict that must be resolved. This story is a prime example of the problem. It's funny, but it didn't really fulfill my expectations of a good yarn. Teachers, take note though: lower-grade students might enjoy hearing or reading this book (it wouldn't take long).

Five Novels
by Daniel Manus Pinkwater
Recommended Age: 12+

Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars
Slaves of Spiegel
The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death
The Last Guru

and Young Adult Novel
- available in one paperback volume from a bookstore near you! [EDIT: Or maybe not. It has been several years since I wrote this review.]

Pinkwater is definitely a strange author. The preface by Jules Feiffer hits it right on the nose when it says that Pinkwater lives in outer space, and looks down on the way people live on earth in a unique perspective. He connects things together in a unique way. That's for sure.

The five novels in this single volume vary from about 50 to over 200 pages in length. The first and longest is Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, which is a rich, funny story narrated by a junior high school loser named Leonard Neeble. He is short, portly, and just moved from "the old neighborhood" in Hogboro (the same fictional, large city in which much of Lizard Music was set) to the suburb of West Kangaroo Park, where he has no friends and is doing terrible in school. His parents send him to a quack shrink named Dr. Prince, but his real therapy comes in the form of Alan Mendelsohn, another schoolmate who doesn't fit in, but who, instead of getting picked on, does the picking.

Mendelsohn's antics at first include a variety of ways of tripping the stuck-up snobs in their school (including a "missile whistle"), and when called upon in class, taking over from the teacher and producing reams of information the teacher had no intention of telling the class (such as Ben Franklin's sex life or the hygiene habits of medieval knights). Then he has a stroke of genius and tells everybody in the school that he's a Martian - born on earth, but his parents are from Mars - and he goes to Mars on vacations, and plans to move there permanently someday.

This results in a riot between people who believe and people who don't believe, which in turn results in Alan being suspended for a week. At the same time, Leonard reads up on psychology and figures out a way to manipulate his shrink into excusing him from school for a week. During their week's vacation, Alan and Leonard go on an adventure in Hogboro in which they meet William Lloyd Floyd, a self-styled philosopher writing the ultimate "stream of consciousness" novel (meaning, he literally types everything he thinks and word-for-word every conversation that takes place around him); Samuel Klugarsh, a rip-off artist whose hokey course in mind-control is an obvious fraud until, unbelievably, it works; and Clarence Yojimbo, a 4,000-year-old, motorcycle-riding, folk-singing Venusian who knows the secrets of Atlantis.

Alan and Leonard progress from being able to enter "state twenty-six" (a mental state in which the brain produces "omega waves," a kind of psychic energy) - the only people on earth who can do so at will - to using antennas and visualization to force the people around them to do ridiculous things, to levitating objects, to finally, crossing over into a parallel universe where they must save the degenerate civilization of Waka-Waka from being terrorized by three chubby alien tyrants in sport jackets and a giant, invisible monster.

The story is weird in much the same way Lizard Music was weird, but it's also very funny, and Leonard and Alan are such clever and spirited friends that you have to love them. I LOVE the pranks they pull at school with their psychic powers, such as making the principal say "Cuckoo!" on the PA system, causing a teacher to have an unbearable craving for a cigarette, giving a classroom monitor a potty emergency, and making people trip over their own feet. I also love the scene in which Dr. Prince meets Clarence Yojimbo and decides that he himself is insane.

The beauty of the story is that it's like the stuff intelligent (but silly) little boys fantasize about coming true. Up to the point where the transistor radio starts playing "Jingle Bells" (a sign of state 26) it could all be a true story of two boys whose heart and imagination are bigger than the world. After that point, it's pure fantasy, and what makes it delicious is that the boys stay just as real and ordinary as ever while the world goes bonkers around them.

Slaves of Spiegel is a sequel to Fat Men from Space, and it begins on the planet Spiegel where the pirate-king Sargon is about to send his pirates on another mission to pilfer junk-food from the four corners of the universe. Parts of it are written in a dramatic form and parts in the form of prose, and it's filled with such absurdities as a starship named Cholesterol. It's was an off-the-wall fantasy about how an Earth man becomes one of three contestants in a junk-food cookoff to see who is the greatest greasy chef in the universe. It is delightfully ridiculous, poking fun not only at filthy eating habits but also at UFO societies, public servants, and people who make important speeches.

Pinkwater is definitely demented. I've figured out that all of Daniel Pinkwater's novels for young adults are interconnected by certain names and themes that he likes. For instance, he has a preoccupation with chickens (maybe he just thinks chickens are funny). One of his stories has a giant chicken in it; two of them have a black man who goes around with a performing chicken under his hat; and even the others have instances of chickens popping up in funny ways. He also has a preference toward slightly chubby, misfit boys (autobiographical streak?) and the names Reynold, Mookerjee, and something beginning with Krug. But his sense of humor is simply outrageous. I laughed and laughed at all these novels.

Next was the one whose title really impressed me: The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. The main characters are very much like Leonard and Alan of the ...Boy From Mars story. Walter and Winston fancy themselves sporting gentlemen, who "snark out" every night - meaning, they sneak out of their apartments after their parents have fallen asleep, and go to an all-night movie theatre on Snark Street to watch double features of classic movies.

Walter, the narrator, has a superstitious mother and a father who is fanatical about avocados. He and Winston go to a miserable school where they are getting a very poor education, and on his first solo snarkout (while Winston is sick in bed) Walter makes a public speech about it in a park where a lot of people make speeches. This attracts the notice of a girl nicknamed Rat, who befriends the boys and introduces them to her eccentric but delightful family, including especially her Uncle Flipping Hades Terwilliger. I just love that name.

Uncle Flipping suddenly disappears, however, and Rat and the boys embark on an adventure through the seedier parts of town, joining forces with the greatest detective in the world (whose pro-wrestler body guard is Winston's Uncle Gorilla) to rescue Uncle Flipping from the clutches of a nefarious stuffed-fruit-bat throwing, orangutan-napping, egg-foo-yung-abusing, master villain who is in league with the aliens who have taken over the bodies of all the real estate brokers in the United States to destroy a giant avocado whose resonant energy has the power to send them all back into outerspace. It's a truly loopy mystery with a very cute ending, wonderful characters and scenes, and another Chicken Man to boot.

Then there is The Last Guru, which begins when a little boy named Harold makes a deal with his Uncle Roy: in three years, when he turns 12, Roy will place a bet for him at the race track. Roy hopes that this will teach Harold a lesson not to throw his money away on horses, but it is still with a degree of regret that he takes the boy's savings on his 12th birthday - $600 - and puts it all on an untried horse with 90-to-1 odds. The horse wins. Harold makes $54,000 and Uncle Roy comes home in a state of nervous collapse.

At that point, I loved this story, but it was only just starting. Soon Roy, acting on behalf of Harold, has invested all of Harold's winnings in really un-promising stocks that suddenly go ballistic, so that in a year's time Harold is the fifth-richest man in the world, and his parents don't find out about it until they see his face on the cover of Newsweek. All Harold breaks loose. The ensuing media frenzy totally disrupts their lives and, what with one thing and another, Harold ends up spending two years in a remote Tibetan retreat learning the secrets of the Order of Silly Hats.

When he comes back he finds out that all America has gone on a guru craze, and that he is now the third-richest man in the world (and only 14 years old). What he does at this point is what gives the story its title, but it's simply hysterical. But to me the part of the story that really stole my heart was Uncle Roy's reaction, right at the beginning, to Harold's amazing success.

The final story, Young Adult Novel, is very weird, but delicious in its own way. It is narrated by a high school boy calling himself Charles the Cat, whose friends - the Honorable Venustiano Carranza (President of Mexico), Captain Colossal, Indiana Zephyr, and Igor - have formed an artistic enclave called the Wild Dada Ducks. They are dedicated to the precepts of Dadaism, which as far as I can explain it (if indeed it can be explained) is the celebration of absurdity, disorder, rebellion, and nonsense.

One of their pranks is to replace a stolen caseful of school trophies with a toilet bowl. Next, when the assistant principal tells them that as an authorized club the school does not recognize their existence, they circulate cards saying (in French) that the assistant principal doesn't exist. (I love that one. I wish I had thought of things like that in high school). Finally they decide to adopt a pathetic little loner of a freshman, named Kevin Shapiro, who happens to have the same name as the hero of a Dadaistic young adult novel they have been writing together.

Only, Kevin Shapiro figures out what they're up to and warns them that if they mess with him, they'll regret it. They go right ahead with their plan, circulating fliers saying that Kevin Shapiro is an excellent person, with the unforeseen result that Kevin gets unanimously elected President of the Student Council. He doesn't want the job and throws it back in the school's collective face, which only makes him even more popular. Soon little Kevin Shapiro is all-powerful, surrounded by a bodyguard of short kids wearing Donald Duck hats called the Fanatical Praetorians, advocating a rival artistic movement called Heroic Realism (which means the worship of comic books), and decreeing that all students shall eat soggy grape nuts for lunch.

Kevin Shapiro's word is law; everyone follows his orders (except, sometimes, the increasingly concerned Dadaists); even the teachers and school administration is intimidated; and finally, Kevin Shapiro turns the whole school against the Wild Dada Ducks in an act of sweet revenge. The humor and irony of this story are simply wonderful. And of course the most absurd part of the fantasy is that a clash between two artistic/philosophical movements can result in a food fight in a high school cafeteria.

Intelligent kids, especially boys, will love these books. To give you an idea of what I mean, over dinner at a restaurant, while I was reading this book, I found myself laughing out loud at the memory of a sentence I had read the day before ("At eight o'clock the next morning the cow arrived."). It was the first sentence of a chapter in Alan Mendelsohn the Boy from Mars, and it caught me completely by surprise. I don't need to tell you that the first image that went through my mind was completely wrong, but funny as heck. And there are plenty of other passages that are at least as funny as that. Sometimes I wonder whether Pinkwater begins his stories (or chapters, or what have you) by making a completely outlandish statement and then seeing how he can follow it up. His comic timing is excellent and he has a gift for making the absurd come to life.

4 Fantastic Novels
by Daniel Pinkwater
Recommended Age: 10+

There is no denying that Daniel Pinkwater is, well, “goofy.” That’s the word NPR journalist Scott Simon uses in his foreword to this collection of four rib-tickling, thought-provoking, all-around-entertaining short novels by the author of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency.

Most of Pinkwater’s books have several things in common. First, they all seem to have chickens in them – or people dressed as chickens. Second, one or more tall, fat men (rather like the picture of Pinkwater on the jacket of this book) appear in them, often as figures of mystery or menace, but sometimes also as an endearing character. Third, junk food is a major preoccupation. But most fortunate of all is the fourth major similarity between all these books: the narrator is always a kid who embraces weirdness, who describes the most alarmingly wacky person you can imagine and then says, “I liked him.”

The first novel in this tall, chubby book is called Borgel. It’s about a boy and the eccentric old man who claims to be a relative, and who lives with the boy’s family even though they aren’t sure HOW he’s related. Together with an obnoxious talking dog named Fafner, Melvin and Borgel travel through space, time, and the other thing in a beat-up old car, visiting strange aliens, crummy worlds where dead skunks are worth a fortune, the outskirts of hell, and (finally) a mysterious island where a divine emanation resembling a Great Popsicle cavorts and dwells. I can’t say I agree with Borgel’s theology, but on the other hand, I can’t argue with a book that explains that time is like a map of New Jersey, and space is like an elliptical bagel with poppy seeds.

Next comes Yobgorgle: Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario, which deliciously unsprings the atmosphere of romantic mystery surrounding the Loch Ness monster. Clearly, if Nessie lived in a place as ordinary as Lake Ontario, she would be a very different creature – and those searching for her might include a junk food enthusiast, an eccentric used car salesman, a quack scientist, and a boy who goes along because he is good at embracing weirdness. Throw in a character who seems to be equal parts Captain Nemo and Flying Dutchman... did I mention the word “goofy” yet?

The third novel is The Worms of Kukumlima, a mystical African safari featuring, guess who, a boy who embraces weirdness and a bunch of weird adults who appreciate him for it. For their summer vacation, they go in search of a mysterious place in deepest, darkest Africa, a place that can only be found when you’re not trying to find it (or anything else in particular). And for what? To converse with a giant earthworm that knows how to play chess. Best paragraph in the book:
Ali Tabu wandered off to make coffee. He was talking to himself. “Mr. Whillikers is alive! I am vindicated. I will take him back to Nairobi and show him to my boss. I have found my client. He did not die. My bad luck is over. People will no longer make fun of me. Now, no one will say that my shoes are cursed.” Ali Tabu tripped over a root and fell flat on his face. “I am a fortunate man,” he muttered.
Finally, there is The Snarkout Boys & the Baconburg Horror, featuring many of the zany characters from The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death. This time, the mismatched trio of teenagers who often sneak out to catch late night, classic movies at the Snark Theatre, are caught up in a mystery that involves a spiritual adviser named the Honorable Lama Lumpo Smythe-Finkel, a beat poet named Jonathan Quicksilver, a drive-in movie theatre that burns down every night, a possible werewolf, and the world’s greatest master criminal – duking it out (mentally, of course) with the world’s greatest detective. Poor Walter, Winston, and Rat get a bit lost in the midst of all the zany grown-up characters and shifting points-of-view, but the best parts of the book remain the ones in which their clashing personalities make you want to blush (or maybe giggle) from a sense of familiarity.

No one turns to Daniel Pinkwater for a socially-relevant story about realistic people living realistic lives. This is good. It’s nice to know you can rely on one writer to be just goofy enough, when you need something goofy to make you feel happy through and through.

The Hoboken Chicken Emergency
by Daniel Manus Pinkwater
Recommended Age: 10+

This frequent guest on National Public Radio is probably best known for this tale of a Polish immigrant's son in Hoboken, New Jersey, who one Thanksgiving Day goes out to pick up his family's turkey from the butcher shop. He returns instead with a live, five-foot tall, 266-pound chicken named Henrietta, whom he adopts as a pet. For an explanation of this strange result, you just have to read the book.

Soon Henrietta is running loose in the streets and causing all kinds of chaos, things come to such a desperate pass that the mayor falls for a charlatan "chicken hunter," before the true solution turns out to be teaching everyone not to fear what they do not understand, and to be kind to chickens.

For sheer, rib-tickling loopiness, I recommend this and many other titles by Daniel M. Pinkwater, also known as D. Manus Pinkwater, and several other confusing but similar pen names.

Lizard Music
by Daniel Manus Pinkwater
Recommended Age: 12+

This is a lighthearted and very strange book, set in the year 1975 or so (about when it was written). So it is full of references that are a little dated, such as Walter Cronkite and Roger Mudd being on the news, hippies and so forth. Let the reader understand.

The narrator, eleven-year-old Victor, is left home alone when his parents go on some kind of retreat to save their marriage, and his teenaged sister Leslie runs off with some hippie friends for a camping trip or something. Victor is left to his own devices, and no sooner does he start staying up late watching night-owl TV, than he discovers a strange program that comes on after the networks have stopped broadcasting (that dates it for sure!): a music show performed by walking, talking lizards.

Victor likes it, but it becomes an obsession when everywhere he goes he starts seeing things that have to do with lizards, or a strange black man who carries a live chicken (named Claudia) under his hat and who has a different name every time you see him. Then Victor becomes convinced, based on further eerie experiences watching late-night TV, that the world has been invaded by pod people. Finally he and the Chicken Man make a pilgrimage to an invisible island inhabited by friendly lizards who are almost all named Reynold, and who have been waiting for a sort of chicken messiah to unleash their anti-pod-people powers and save the world.

That's basically what the book's about, but it's very quirky and strange, and sometimes I wonder whether the author was high on something when he wrote it. It's very funny, though, and charming and entertaining, and the hero (Victor) has a certain realistic appeal. The story even makes reference to Fat Men From Space (in the form of a late-night movie called Invasion of the Fat Men) among other twisted references to famous movies and TV shows.

The underlying lesson of the story, if it has one (though part of the fun is that it's mostly just for fun), is that pod people aren't from outer space; they're regular people who just develop that way, and it may or may not have to do with junk food. What they are is people who pretend to be human without meaning it or understanding it; thoughtless people with bad taste and poor judgment; people who mindlessly follow ridiculous fads and enjoy lowbrow entertainment that demeans rather than ennobles the human mind. In that respect I kind of like Lizard Music. I think it might be the best Pinkwater story I've read.

By the way, here's the "about the author" note from Lizard Music, for your entertainment:
D. Manus Pinkwater was born in Tennessee. He went to school, traveled all over the world, and wound up in Hoboken, New Jersey. His wife, Jill, is also an author/illustrator of books for children. Together, they operate a school for puppies called Superpuppy. Mr. Pinkwater believes that all books, pictures, and puppies are gifts from Almighty God and should be received and appreciated, rather than written, drawn, and trained as though humans could do those things by themselves.
Odd, but thought-provoking!

Looking for Bobowicz
by Daniel Pinkwater
Recommended Age: 10+

This sequel to The Hoboken Chicken Emergency includes a different set of characters, but the real star of both books is the same impressive, historic, colorfully urban, and fantastically silly city of Hoboken, New Jersey.

In this book, a boy whose nickname is Nick (short for Ivan Itch), becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Henrietta the Giant Chicken and the boy, Bobowicz, who adopted her. Nick, whose parents are just the sort of parents you wish you had but are lucky you didn’t, has just moved to Hoboken in the middle of a summer heat wave. While his parents redecorate their house, Nick befriends a couple of neighbor kids named Bruno and Loretta. Together, the kids enjoy comic-book versions of classic novels, exploring a cave, talking to bums, listening to a pirate radio station, and unravelling the mystery of a bike-stealing phantom and (yes, of course) a giant chicken.

This is a deliciously absurd story about the kind of summer vacation that any big-city kid would be lucky to have – the kind that small-town kids can only dream of. Read it, enjoy it, be warmed by its good-fellowship. This is a book about accepting differences (including really profound oddness), enjoying experiences that most people miss, and above all, being kind to chickens.

EDIT: Pinkwater is also the author of the Magic Moscow, Big Bob, and Bad Bears series, and numerous other titles including Return of the Moose, The Afterlife Diet, The Magic Pretzel, and Fat Camp Commandos.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find Pinkwater's humor so refreshingly funny! Thanks for the great entry about his books. Yeah, I'm reading it five years after your post which just goes to show you how amazing the internet truly is. Even ancient history can be found here. (blogs more than 2 years old qualify as ancient history, no?)