Daniel Pinkwater

"The main street of Porky, renamed Blintzni Spamgorod in honor of its former glory, has turned into an endless colorful midway. Merrymakers walk, crawl, hop, slither, fly, and float back and forth all day and all night, enjoying the many pleasant spectacles. There are roast goose jugglers, meteor swallowers, monsters able to turn themselves inside out, many-mouthed musicians who can play fifteen horns at once, pseudo-octopusian fandango dancers, and whistlers from Glintnil. There are mixed beast races, wrestling matches against giant slothoids from Neptune, six-dimensional chess games, screaming contests, and knocking down three milk bottles with a baseball." -- from Slaves of Spiegel

Lo these many years ago, there was a show on PBS (the name of which escapes me) where a narrator would read passages from some worthy children's/ intermediate/ young adult book, over footage of an artist drawing a picture to illustrate the scene (usually in chalk, for some reason). This was the center of my tv viewing when I stayed home from elementary school with a cold, and it featured an impressive variety of different oddball books.

One of the strangest, and most memorable, of these shows featured a book called Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater. The passage they read was a bizarre little story about a boy left home alone when his parents went on vacation, who stays up late eating anchovy pizza and watching tv, and ends up catching a show which consists of nothing more than a jazz band made up of a bunch of lizards playing instruments. (This occurs just before the station goes off the air for the night... And you thought the opening to Neuromancer had aged badly...)

I went (or sent my parents- I forget which) to the library at once, and grabbed a copy of the book. Which gets even weirder, and funnier, as the protagonist sets off in search of the lizards, aided by a vagrant known as the Chicken Man and his hyperintelligent hen Henrietta. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that Pinkwater (who seems to have pioneered the now-you-see-it-now-you-don't middle name thing, writing as "Daniel Pinkwater," "Daniel M. Pinkwater," "D. Manus Pinkwater" and a few other permutations) had a largish shelf of books at the library, each more demented than the last, and with titles like Alan Mendolsohn, Boy From Mars, Fat Men From Space and The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death.

Fast-forward fifteen or twenty years, and I found myself in Boston a few weeks back looking at a display of children's/ young adult books on the wall of a Borders Books. I recognized a fair number of them (the Susan Cooper books, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler...), but said to myself "Hey, where's the Pinkwater?" On that trip, I ended up buying copies of Lizard Music and The Big U. Which, when you get right down to it, aren't all that dissimilar in spirit... A couple of weeks later, I bought a Pinkwater omnibus from Glen Cook at Boskone.

The recent request for juvenile recommendations reminded me of this, and while the books might be a bit "young" to fit the original request, they're still a blast. I've only gotten through two of the five novels in the omnibus (Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars and Slaves of Spiegel, leaving The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, The Last Guru, and Young Adult Novel), but they all crackle with the sort of demented inventiveness of the passage quoted above. Drab, ordinary New Jersey-esque reality collides messily with a parade of eccentrics, flim-flam-artists, and improbable aliens (Clarence Yojimbo, Venusian and folk singer, and his motorcycle gang), to the amusement (and ultimate benefit) of the young misfit protagonists. Much of the writing reads sort of like a cross between Dr. Seuss and "Eye of Argon" written by somebody who actually understood the thesaurus when he read it, and Pinkwater just as clearly understands the trials of being young, bookish, and constantly underestimated by well-meaning but daft adults.

Some of the jokes haven't aged particularly well- Lizard Music contains numerous references to Walter Cronkite, and "Bat Masterson Junior High" was too old a reference for me the first time I read it. Others are as topical as ever ("We peeked into the front of the store. The brothers of the Laughing Alligator were taking turns reading a Scientology book to each other and cracking up laughing."). Others are so over-the-top it's hard to see how they could age. And no matter how weird the stories get, the young heros conduct themselves with the sort of confidence that the school bullies who pick on them only wish they could muster.

It may be that these are books you have to hit at the right age to really love them. Then again, it's hard to think of a better send-up of New Age daffiness than Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars. These are, ultimately, the books that got me reading SF (and, silly though they are, they're undeniably SF), and they're still a terrific way to kill an hour or two. If you see Glen Cook at a con, grab a copy of Alan Mendelsohn..., and give it a look. Then pass it on to a young kid who needs something to read...

"I'm going to stop writing now. Henry just looked in and told us we could come up to the control room. We're about to pass through an enormous flock of space chickens, and we want to see them."

Last modified: 9 May, 2002