Daniel Pinkwater is perhaps one of the greatest and most overlooked American writers of the 20th century. I read many of his books in grade school, anDaniel Pinkwater is perhaps one of the greatest and most overlooked American writers of the 20th century. I read many of his books in grade school, and those that were available as audio books, I listened to over and over on family vacations more times than I can count. I have probably read and/or heard the Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death at least 30 times. I wasn't really into music as a kid, and audio books, especially Pinkwater's, made up much of the background noise of my young life.
This past week, I reread Five Novels (a 1997 compilation of five of his books which had at that point gone out of print, which is itself happily still in print). I probably read it in three days, and I doubt I've ever read 656 pages faster. Pinkwater's novels are not exactly difficult reading (not to mention that I discovered I still had large tracts of them memorized), but that isn't really the point. They are like small, intricately painted eggs that your elderly Ukrainian grandmother keeps on the mantel piece in The Old Apartment. Within the constraints of form and scale (be it that of egg or of young adult trade paperback) jewel-like objects of elegant design and surprising detail are created.
Pinkwater novels are neither long nor dense, and most of them follow a comfortingly predictable formula (predictable to those of us lucky enough to have read a lot of Pinkwater, anyway), in which a kid between the ages of 11 and 15 (always male, often fat and of vaguely Eastern European heritage, usually some kind of social pariah to his peers) blunders out of his ordinary life (which is more or less subtly tinged with uncomfortably conformist stereotypes of mid-century American suburbia and fairly harsh critique of the gross disservices done by mediocre public education, often to the brightest children), usually at the instigation of a mysterious new friend (or eccentric relative, or ship of humanoid aliens in polyacrylic leisure suits...you get the idea) into outer space, alternate dimensions, or simply the unexplored underbelly of his own home town, to embark on fantastic adventures.
The books abound with bizarre and occult references to everything from classic Hollywood films to eastern mysticism to obscure food products to local landmarks of cities where Pinkwater has lived (mostly Chicago and Hoboken, usually with slightly altered names), tossed out in a casual manner that blurs fact and fiction (the fictitious and ludicrously-named bands that appear in many Pinkwater books may be among his greatest contributions to literature.) Only the (by today's standards) absurdly low prices of movies or comic books his characters consume, or occasional references to no longer quite so relevant public figures date Pinkwater's otherwise timeless tales of early adolescent alienation and escapist longing. Pinkwater's works still speak to the fat, bullied, bespectacled, painfully bored 12-year-old Jewish boy in all of us as clearly as when they were written. If you don't think you have such an inner nebbish, read Five Novels. You might be surprised....more