When I was ten years old, I didn’t want to grow up to be an astronaut or a rock star; I wanted to grow up to be Daniel M. Pinkwater. I can’t think of any other writer I read during that time of my life who not only influenced me profoundly but gave me something to shoot for. I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to write things that had the same crazy magic to them. On Amazon's product page for the book there is a list of "statistically improbable phrases": omega waves, blue garlic, gong crashing, perfect spiritual master, avocado pie, performing chicken, biology notebook, chili parlor, existential plane, lunch court, magic gem, fifty monks, space pirates, greatest detective, giant television screens, raisin toast. Try and make all of that stuff fit in any five books, let alone any one.
The most startling thing about Pinkwater’s novels—especially Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars—is how they are not “kid’s books” but were written to be read by anyone, really—not just preteens stuck in urban or suburban wastelands with no real connections to anything. That was who he was ostensibly writing for, though—kids like me who were growing up in a pre-Internet, pre-Nintendo, pre-cellphone world, but who were still smart and yearning to do something big with our lives. Pinkwater’s books were all about that kind of yearning, and they spoke directly to me and my friends in a kind of magical surrealism that has not only aged well but become timeless.
The best of his books have been collected into a single paperbound volume courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, called simply 5 Novels. Mendelsohn is the best of the bunch and was the book that drew me into Pinkwater’s loopy orbit. I bumped into it courtesy of my older brother: one day I saw the book open on my brother’s lap in the backseat of our parent’s car, and when I saw the sentence “FATSO, WHERE ARE YOUR GYM SHOES?” I laughed out loud and knew I had to read it for myself. The story was like looking into a mirror: nerdy loser (yes, that was me) in school meets fellow nerd, and the two of them go on various adventures that eventually lead them to cross planes of existence.
It was a more childlike species of Clifford Simak’s “big front lawn” science fiction / fantasy; who else but Pinkwater would create a character named Clarence Yojimbo, a Venusian folk-singer with money problems? Best of all was the feel of the book: two kids sneaking into the city on their lunch money to discover the secrets of the universe, pawing through weird old bookstores and meeting all manner of eccentric characters (and sometimes getting ripped off by them), and then discussing the best ways to levitate their school without getting caught or killing anyone inside. There are a few things that don’t work as well for me as an adult, but they are not fatal: a caricature of a psychiatrist, Dr. Prince, who is not essential to the story and who seems to simply exist as an embodiment of pigheaded adulthood (not that the book was lacking for any such examples beforehand).
Mendelsohn also helped me break out of the weird rut of reading the same four or five books over and over again—a weird problem that had taken hold of me a few years earlier, and which made it impossible for me to discover anything new or interesting, because somehow nothing else seemed worth the trouble. After Pinkwater, there was no book I wouldn’t pick up—in fact, I graduated from Pinkwater more or less directly to authors like Yukio Mishima. If Leonard Neeble, the “hero” of Mendelsohn, could smash through the books he bought with his own money without fear, why couldn’t I? And, apparently, so did many other people who read Pinkwater’s books and took the same inspirations.
Of the other novels in this volume, there are two more that are about as close to my heart. The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death is an even crazier vision than Mendelsohn, but it has the same wonderful, urban-magic atmosphere about it—a world of all-night cult cinemas, restaurants, cities within cities and grand conspiracies being executed right under our noses in dank cellar rooms. And like Mendelsohn, it stars two young misfits who blunder cheerfully into the middle of all of this as a way of escaping the paralyzing boredom of school and home. Boys didn’t cast quite the same spell over me as the other book, but I found it just as endearing, and it still holds up nicely after all this time. I wanted to live in a city like the one Pinkwater described in Boys, and when I grew up, I found to my delight that I probably could.
The Last Guru might have been Pinkwater’s attempt at something in the same vein as Jonathan Livingston Seagull or even Love Story: a small, simple book about one very big thing. For me, though, it’s far better than both of those books for three reasons: it’s better written; it’s smarter and more knowing; and it is quite funny. The story itself is like a modern-day retelling of the Buddha—or, really, any great spiritual leader—but with a sly twist: once this leader amasses all of his followers and power, he uses it to dispel the very mystique he conjured up in the first place. The book’s lesson is as clear to young people as it is to adults: Doubt everything. Find your own light.
The other two books in the collection impress me less, but are still enjoyable. Slaves of Spiegel reads like a parody of a pulp SF story, complete with its twist ending, and I suspect a generation that has come to rediscover such things through venues like Mystery Science Theater 3000 will enjoy it more than they might normally have. Young Adult Novel reads like a strange, not-quite-with-it clone of a Pinkwater book—for one, it’s not very convincing in its details, but I liked the idea even if the execution seemed to fall far short. In it, a cadre of self-appointed high-school surrealists, the “Dada Ducks” (vaguely reminiscent of the kind of kids I used to know in high school who were way too clever for everyone’s own good) try to elevate a class outcast into a cult figure and have it backfire miserably. “It has no moral,” one of the Ducks exclaims at the end, “it is a Dada story.” So it is, and I give credit to Pinkwater for doing two tricky things at once: bringing Dada and surrealism to a younger audience in a form they could understand, and showing the perils of too much “culture” for its own sake.
Pinkwater has written a number of other books that I’ve loved in different measure. I would have loved to include Yobgorgle, a take on Loch Ness Monster-style pseudoscience that somehow manages to include the mythology of the Flying Dutchman in there, along with a great many other things that shouldn’t be under the same roof in any book and yet somehow sit comfortably side by side. That was, and is, Pinkwater’s strength: to give us the crazy and the sublime, the goofy and the grave, in equal measure and to make them all feel right at home.
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Other Lives Of The Mind