Monday, April 9, 2012

The Pigman by Paul Zindel

The Pigman was published in 1968, but it’s one of those YA books like The Outsiders or Catcher in the Rye or A Separate Peace that kind of retains everything relevant about it, a direct style that doesn’t seem so much like a classic even fifty years later. In The Pigman, teenage protagonists John and Lorraine hold telephone marathons, calling up houses as a joke and pretending to be an organization, a charity, or some made up imaginary person. They explain what they do in the first few pages by way of talking about the Marshmallow Kid, a social outcast ever since he got caught stealing a bag of marshmallows from the grocery store. Lorraine explains,

“Anyway, [the Marshmallow Kid’s] the one who started cheating in the telephone marathons we were having. After Dennis had rung up that staggering record about having his nose bitten off, Norton started getting smart, and when it was his turn to pick out a phone number, he’d peek a little and try to make his finger land on a woman’s number rather than a man’s. You could always make a woman talk twice as long as a man. I used to ignore it because in his case it didn’t matter whom he spoke to on the phone. They all hung up.”

Lorraine ends up peeking herself and chooses a number off of Howard Avenue, a street just a couple of blocks away from her house. She ends up getting Mr. Angelo Pignati who “sounded like such a nice old man, but terribly lonely. He was just dying to talk.” He agrees to donate money to the made up “Lorraine and John Fund” and right away Lorraine and John start feeling bad about taking advantage of an old man that they got on the phone. When they go over to his house to collect the money, he invites them in, and reveals the reason that they dub him “The Pigman” – he has a room filled with pig figurines and

“It was a real dump except for the table and shelves at the far end of it. The table had pigs all over it. And the shelves had pigs all over them. There were pigs all over the place. It was ridiculous. I never saw so many pigs. I don’t mean the live kind; these were phony pigs. There were glass pigs and clay pigs and marble pigs.”

What begins as a joke – calling up the Pigman as part of a telephone marathon – continues as a nuanced game, as Lorraine and John visit the Mr. Pignati regularly, spending time at his house, taking him to the zoo, and the department store. The uncomfortable nature of their relationship is revealed by their unwillingness to always let the Pigman buy them wine and snacks and expensive meals at restaurants, and while their relationship is more than the game that it starts out as, it remains tinged with an imbalance. When strangers ask John and Lorraine if they are the Pigman’s son and daughter, both notice the Pigman’s face fall when they admit that they are not. Seeing his distress, Lorraine amends her answer by saying, “I’m his niece.”

Both John and Lorraine are high school sophomores, and the novel alternates from both of their perspectives as they tell the story of the Pigman. Both come from homes and family situations that are less than ideal, and it becomes clear that while the Pigman isn’t exactly normal himself, he does offer both of them a stable second home. Lorraine’s mother’s “got a real hang-up about men and boys” and, as a live-in nurse, “borrows” food from her client’s pantry. She is suspicious of Lorraine’s friendship with John, and monitors their conversations on the phone. John’s dad “the Bore” isn’t a whole lot better. While on the phone Lorraine asks him,

            “What’s all that yelling in the background?”
            “It’s just the Bore.”
            “What did you do now?”
He raised his voice. “They’re trying to accuse me of gluing the telephone lock. They don’t trust me around here.”

But it runs deeper than that, as John’s perspective in the novel shows his home life, where his older brother Kenny is venerated while John is put down and ignored. His dad always “got a big kick out of it when I was about ten years old, and I’d go around emptying all the beer glasses lying around the house.” But the disconnect between John and his brother is even there, as he says, “It was about the only thing I ever did that got any attention. My brother was the one everybody really liked – Kenny, the smart college kid. The only thing I did better than him was drink beer.” The Pigman gives Lorraine and John a reprieve from family, and opens up his house to both of them.

Things fall apart slowly, and then all at once. It’s a quiet book that hits you all at once with its small moments – of Lorraine dressing up in Mr. Pignati’s wife’s clothing, of John leaving a lit cigarette between the fingers of a department store mannequin, of the Pigman feeding animals at the zoo. It was published more than fifty years ago, but it’s so relevant and gets the voices of John and Lorraine so right through their relationship with a stranger, especially as they skate on their roller skates in the department store, the three of them in a line and

“All John was doing was opening his arms and in his own way saying: ‘Look at me, world! Look at my life and energy and how glad I am to be alive!’ We must have looked just like three monkeys. The Pigman, John, and me – three funny little monkeys.”


Robert Runté said...

I first encountered PigMan when I was a substitute teacher in a Grade 7 class and walked in on reading period. What shocked me was -- the class was actually reading. They didn't even take advantage of the fact they had a sub....they kept reading. So I picked the book up and started reading too -- you know, role modelling. Trouble was, I couldn't put it down. I ended up reading it through the next four periods. I'm pretty sure that those classes were all assigned the PigMan as well, but um, either way, that's what we did. I stayed after school to finish. (I'm still a slow reader.) Bought a copy the next day for my library, and just this week, put it on my daughter's shelf; now that she's seen Hunger Games 11 times, might be open to a new book....

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am in grade 7 and our whole class is doing a blog for this book. When I first found out that we were reading such an old book I was a little bit worried that it wouldn't be a good book but after we started reading I was hooked i didn't want to stop. I found the ending so powerful and even though the book was so old we all loved it!

Anonymous said...

Hi I'm a grade 7 student too.I just read the book in school and I loved it. The book opened up a whole new world for me. Even though it was an older book I still thought it was related to our lives now a days. Our school has also started a blog on the book.