Welcome to 'Fine Lines', the Friday feature in which we give a sentimental, sometimes-critical, far more wizened look at the children's and YA books we loved in our youth. This week, writer / reviewer / blogger Lizzie Skurnick reads Paul Zindel's 1969 novel 'The Pigman', in which two teens, John and Lorraine, discover that life is no day at the zoo.
Now, I don't like school, which is what you might say is one of the factors that got us involved with this old guy we nicknamed the Pigman. Actually, I hate school, but then most of the time I hate everything.
I'm glad nowadays that therapists and Masters-in-teaching programs are here to minister to the maladjusted amongst us, but I'm not sure I love what they've done for literature. It's not that the notion of the dysfunctional family has disappeared - obviously we are beset by a new indie film about the crushing complexity of family life set to a charming soundtrack every other week. (I just can't trust any work of art that reverts to the profile of a teen lying upon a bed and a guitar riff as any kind of a gesture towards plot.) But Paul Zindel, former high school teacher and avatar of a certain stretch of miserable adolescence, knew both plot and teen peril. In his garbage heap of a world, adults, pressed into a strata of pure misery, wait calmly for the crush to descend on their children, who have little but their mordant wit and a fast-dwindling sense of good to hold it at bay.
John Conlan, high school student, is a blue-eyed, good-looking career prevaricator who drinks too much and has a soft spot for any hint of enthusiasm, however hokey. (Planning a prank on yet another substitute teacher, he desists because the old guy is so excited about telling the students about commemorative stamps.) His friend Lorraine is obsessed equally with omens and psychoanalysis, worried about her weight, mildly in love with John, and equally given to ruminating about the destroyed adults around her:
I mean, take the Cricket for instance. I mean Mrs. Reillen. She's across the library watching me as I'm typing this, and she's smiling. You'd think she knew I was defending her. She's really a very nice woman, although it's true her clothes are too tight, and her nylons do make this scraaaaaaatchy sound when she walks. But she isn't trying to be sexy or anything. If you could see her, you'd know that. She just outgrew her clothes. Maybe she doesn't have any money to buy new ones or get the old ones let out. Who knows what kind of problems she has? Maybe she's got a sick mother at home like Miss Stewart, the typing teacher. I know Miss Stewart has a sick mother at home because she let me mark some typing papers illegally and drop them off at her house after school one day. And there was her sick mother-very thin and with this smile frozen on her face-right in the middle of the room! That was this strange part. Miss Stewart kept her mother in this bed right in the middle of the living room, and it almost made me cry....When I look at Miss Reillen I feel sorry. When I hear her walking I feel even more sorry for her because maybe she keeps her mother in a bed in the middle of the living room room just like Miss Stewart. Who would want to marry a woman who keeps her sick mother in a bed in the middle of the living room?
Sorry to type that whole huge thing. But that's the question for John and Lorraine-how are they going to grow into any kind of a life without the miserable specter of their parents-basically, death writ large-smack in the middle of it? When we meet them, there is no aspect of John or Lorraine's life not entirely shadowed. Lorraine's mother is a home nurse ministering to people who are dying, from whom she steals the occasional can of soup, while remaining obsessed with making sure Lorraine doesn't get loose with boys at the same time she informs her she's not very good-looking. John's father, whom he calls "The Bore," and his mother, who is obsessed with deodorizing everything, are fonder of John's older stockbroker brother, Kenneth, than they are of their incendiary younger son. ("Be your own man!" his father says. "But for God's sake get your hair cut - you look like an oddball.")
Which explains why John and Lorraine are so drawn to Mr. Angelo Pignati, a man they befriend after prank-calling him as members of a fake neighborhood charity. As John says, the Pigman - so called because of the enormous collection of novelty pigs he shows them - is the absolute reverse of all the adults they know: Not only filled with native good humor, but innocently trusting and loving of those around him in a world where the default mode towards them is antagonistic. The Pigman isn't trying to be on their level or drag them down, he just delights in their company: "In fact," says John, "the thing Lorraine and I liked best about the Pigman was that he didn't go around saying we were cards or jazzy or cool or hip. He said we were delightful, and if there's on way to show how much you're not trying to make believe you're not behind the times, it's to go around saying people are delightful."
The delightfully oddball friendship that develops is one in which the three engage in the kind of activities John and Lorraine have never experienced: visiting baboons at the zoo, shopping for exotic foods at Beekman's, roller-skating through department stores, playing pen-and-pencil shorthand psychology games meant to reveal one's true nature. It's a childhood compressed into a few months, one that John and Lorraine treasure: "One part of me was saying 'Don't let this nice old man waste his money,' and the other half was saying, 'Enjoy it, enjoy doing something absolutely absurd' - something that could let me be a child in a way I never could be with my mother, something just silly and absurd and...beautiful," thinks Lorraine. John has an even more violent feeling of protection:
"John, turn your radio down."
"John, you're disturbing your father."
"John, you're disturbing your mother."
"John, you're disturbing the cat."
"John, please do whatever you'd like. Make yourself comfortable. If you want something out of the refrigerator, help yourself. I want you to feel at home."
And always with a big smile so you knew he meant it.
That was the Pigman, and I knew I'd kill Norton if he tried to hurt the old man."
Yes, there is a bad thing, and it happens with Norton. You know how I am about the bad endings. But Lorraine and John aren't bitter at their parents-"My mom is a very pretty woman when she has her long brown hair down," Lorraine says, "and when she smiles, which is hardly ever. She just doesn't look the way she sounds, and I often wonder how she got this way"-but they do, as Lorraine says, wonder how they got this way-because if they could find out, maybe they could keep it from happening to them. There's an important scene in the middle of the novel where Lorraine observes an attendant at the zoo:
The thing that made me stop going to the zoo a few years ago was the way one attendant fed the sea lions. He climbed up on the big diving board in the middle of the pool and unimaginatively just dropped the fish in the water. I mean, if you're going to feed sea lions, you're not supposed to plop the food in the tank. You can tell by the expressions on their faces that the sea lions are saying things like "Don't dump the fish in!"
"Pick the fish up one by one and throw them into the tank so we can chase after them."
"Throw the fish in different parts of the tank!"
"Let's have fun!"
That's Lorraine and John, looking for any sign of life from the adults around them for whom they depend not only for nourishment, but for love, interest, smarts, play-any sense of joy in the world. It's not until they meet Mr. Pignati that they find it-and it's only after losing him that they realize it's up to them to create it again: "There was no one else to blame anymore-No Bores or Old Ladies or Nortons, or Assassins waiting at the bridge....Our life would be what we made of it-nothing more, nothing less." John and Lorraine want to avoid the crush. But their roller skates are gone, and it's just not certain that they can.
• • • • • •
First of all, MANY THANKS to all of you for your lovely notes and congratulations! MANY, MANY THANKS. I cried six times and had to go buy some really expensive luggage to collect myself. I am really looking forward to us having wonderful book worms together. (Also, Tumi is having a 40% off sale. I added 10% with a Bloomies card and 15% with a July 4th pre-sale for a grand total of 65% off their Tech Pulse line. I'm just saying.) I can assure you that, actually, every single book you all asked for is coming up in this column. For reels; I love those too. And for interested jezzies, I'm starting a mailing list for news and events and any other book-related info on the book I deem informational. If you would like to be on it, simply write me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the words SUBSCRIBE TUMI in the subject line, and I will put you on it.
Now, onto last week's Plotfinder, which related to a Suffragette, some forced-feeding, and a rape. After forwarding all the guesses to my querying friend, I received this missive:
I think THAT'S IT! I've just ordered it through Brooklyn's interlibrary loan and will soon be able to hold it in my hands and know for certain is this is the long lost book! How exciting. Thank you! Will keep you posted.
I believe it is too! Because I am too impatient to wait for Brooklyn's creaky library system to come through, and because I love the title, I am going to go ahead and give the win to Sue C. for Never Jam Today. Ah, why they did away with the lovely painted illustration covers, I will never know:
NEVER KNOW. Congrats, Sue! You know the drill: email me at email@example.com with your column request.
I am also giving a bonus column request to commenter Eeva, who helped me out with A Long Day in November, which seems sadly out of print, like every other good book in the world. It is by Ernest J. Gaines, of course, a writer I have often enjoyed in adulthood! (At some point, maybe we can eke out a column on adult writers who wrote YA before they were trying to make all adult writers write for YA, so any intel on that, bring it on.) Eeva, write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and do with me what you will.