Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Pigman

Zindel, Paul. (1968). The Pigman. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0553263218.

John Conlan and Lorraine Jensen, both sophomores in high school, take turns narrating their story as the school librarian—The Cricket—surveys them, thinking they are doing an assignment. Instead, they recount the tale of how they met “the pigman.” While playing a prank-calling game (where they call a random number and do whatever it takes to keep the person on the line), Lorraine happens upon Mr. Pignati and pretends to be a charity worker asking for money. John takes the idea and runs with it, actually getting the Pigman to agree to making a contribution of $10.

When John and Lorraine actually do show up at Mr. Pignati’s house, they discover that the Pigman is a sweet, giving and lonely old man, who would like nothing more than for the kids to accompany him to the zoo. His wife Conchetta is away in California and he doesn’t know what to do with his days (though the kids observe just by a look around the apartment that the Pigman could spend his days tidying up a little).

John and Lorraine do go with the Pigman to the zoo and meet “Bobo” an ape to whom the Pigman has grown attached—to whom he speaks and throws peanuts. When they see just how lonely he is (and start to suspect that Conchetta really isn’t just out visiting in California but may have actually left the Pigman for good) they feel moved to spend even more time with him. In return, the Pigman sort of serves as a surrogate parent since neither John nor Lorraine get along with their parents. The Pigman even buys them expensive gifts they would never have been able to afford.

One such gift was a pair of roller skates—a pair each for the three of them. One night as they are playing around the apartment—in their roller skates—John gets Mr. Pignati to chase him, causing the older man to over-exert himself. The Pigman has a heart attack and is taken to the hospital.

In the meantime, John and Lorraine spend their time at the Pigman’s apartment, having promised to take care of it while he was gone. It’s during that time, rummaging around in Mr. Pignati’s (and Conchetta’s) belongings that they discover Conchetta is actually dead.

Knowing that Mr. Pignati might be coming home the next day and that they won’t have the house to themselves anymore, John decides to throw a small party. But word of the party spreads around until the apartment is so full things are getting out of hand. In the end, one really jerky delinquent shows up and actually tries to steal from Mr. Pignati. He and John get into a fight, but still worse, Mr. Pignati shows up unannounced. The police are called to escort John and Lorraine to their homes.

When things have blown over a little, John and Lorraine convince Mr. Pignati to go back to the zoo with them, like old times. But when they get there, they discover that Bobo, the ape, has died. This sends Mr. Pignati over the edge and he suffers another heart attack—this one being fatal. They leave him there in the monkey house to be found by passersby because they don’t want to get into more trouble.

But even as they are sitting there on a park bench thinking about what has happened, they realize how much they had in common with Mr. Pignati. That they were just as lonely as he and that when he died, he took something of them with him. The only difference was that they were not dead—they had their whole lives in front of them, and an opportunity to make their lives into something more than poor Pigman was there at the end. As John says in the last chapter:

But I did care. She thinks she knows everything that goes on inside me, and she doesn’t know a thing. What did she want from me—to tell the truth all the time? To run around saying it did matter to me that I live in a world where you can grow old and be alone and have to get down on your hands and knees and beg for friends? A place where people just sort of forget about you because you get a little old and your mind’s a little senile or silly?.... Didn’t she know how sick to my stomach it made me to feel to know it’s possible to end your life with only a baboon to talk to? And maybe Lorraine and I were only a different kind of baboon in a way. Maybe we were all baboons for that matter—big blabbing baboons—smiling away and not really caring what was going on as long as there were enough peanuts bouncing around to think about…baffled baboons concentrating on all the wrong things… That was the secret—don’t have any spare time. Watch the little things in life, the ones you have control over.

When I first started this book, the narration seemed a little dated. But it only took until the second chapter for me to see that even if this book was written before I was born, it can be seen to be just as racy and dark as I’m sure it seemed back then. In my honest opinion, the reason for this is that, even if the vocabulary may have changed a little, the themes which are central to this book are just as important today as ever.

For one, John and Lorraine can not relate to their parents. Though John has both of his parents at home, his father has a mundane corporate job and his mother spends her time trying to convince John how great his father is (or maybe she’s trying to convince herself). Either way, John feels very disconnected from the both of them—he calls his mother the Old Lady and his father, the Bore. He spends a lot of his time hanging out in a cemetery drinking and chain-smoking and telling tall tales to his friends. Lorraine, on the other hand, has only her mother. But her mother has been so jaded by life and men that she is very skittish about the prospect of Lorraine having any guy friends. She also makes Lorraine feel bad about herself and even tells her that she is not pretty. So, while Lorraine is the more studious of the two (John is the class clown), she is still drawn in by John and his friends not only because he is “handsome” but also maybe because John represents all that Lorraine’s mother fears—but such seems to out of reach to Lorraine anyway.

This disconnection, this distance, from their parents fuels their need to rebel. And that is a theme that has no age.

Another theme, not stated as explicitly, seems to be the pushing of boundaries in an attempt at self-discovery. One criticism I read about this book was that it seemed to be so “dark.” But that seems to be a relevant and realistic quality to books of young adult fiction simply because adolescence is not the bright and happy period people wish it would be. Sure, adults look back on their teens with nostalgia and think about how easy and fun “the good ol’ days” were, but their memories seem to be hazier than what their actual realities probably were. Adolescence for many (dare I say “most”) is a time of confusion and fear—even for those who seem the most confident… ask any popular person if they really think their life is “easy”—it is a time of discovery not only of self but of the world around them. It is a time when the Disney wears off and they start to learn that while it may be “a small world after all” it’s not always one in which the evil is defeated at the end of an hour and a half. That sometimes, evil does prevail and sometimes we are powerless against it.

Another thing many adolescents discover is that as much as they want to be older—that pre-requisite for so many long-desired privileges—that they will get old. Age—real elderly aging—is something awkward and borderline disgusting. They repel it and deny it. It’s part of what makes them so brave.

I saw these themes screaming out from the pages of The Pigman. John and Lorraine, pulled between what they are told they are supposed to be, what they feel inside they are and afraid of what they are becoming and might some day be. The tone may feel dark to some, perhaps to many adults, but I can see young adults really relating and enjoying the vicarious experience of really pushing the limits.

Reviews for The Pigman (via

Publishers Weekly
Headline news…remarkable…Zindel has written a story that will not be denied.

School Library Journal
An intensely moving story of believably alienated young people.

Awards:2002 Margaret A. Edwards Award (ALA)
1968 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book

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