Daniel Pinkwater, Five Novels (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997)

Daniel Pinkwater's novels invariably pounce on the weirdness that underpins everyday life. Of course, he envisions worlds with avocado-powered computers and 800-year-old Venusian biker folksingers. Not to mention places where the most feared pirates in the universe are 300-pound men in leisure suits. The bizarre otherworld of Pinkwater's books, where everyday misfits find themselves significant and important while mundane life is a pale imitation of the real, weird world, is perfect for capturing the mind of anyone who believes that the world must be weirder than it appears to be. As a master of making the absurd seem perfectly normal, Pinkwater opens readers' eyes to the inherent strangeness around us.

Five Novels pulls together a group of Pinkwater gems, all originally published between 1978 and 1982: Alan Mendelson, the Boy from Mars (1979), Slaves of Spiegel (1982), The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death (1982), The Last Guru (1978), and Young Adult Novel (1982). Each novel pokes fun at the ordered ordinariness of the world. Using misfit teens as protagonists, Pinkwater shows that the world is a much more severely bent place than it appears to be. This is especially evident when you get into the real thick of things, whether it's in the used bookstores and chili parlors of Hogboro with Alan Mendelson or the greasy spoons and back alleys of Hoboken with Norman Bleistift.

The main characters in Alan Mendelson, the Boy from Mars go through an experience common to Pinkwater novels. Starting as outcasts, they find that the world around them is much more than the dreary lives of their families. Alan and his sidekick Leonard Needle discover that the ordinary world is only a tiny fraction of the true reality. Underneath the bland exterior of the town of Hogboro is a strange world of Venusian biker folksingers, mystical brotherhoods, and parallel dimensions. When they become heroes for saving a parallel world from tyranny, they learn their true potential for greatness. Slaves of Spiegel provides an unlikely collection of villains; the 300-pound-leisure-suit-wearing, junk-food-addicted space pirates of the planet Spiegel. Instead of focusing on the misfits, the book focuses on the villains. Through the Spiegelians' quest for the ultimate artery-clogging, heart-stopping meal, they kidnap a short-order cook and his assistant to participate in a cook-off for universal greasy spoon supremacy. Though told by Norman Bleistift, the assistant cook, everything focuses on the terrible menace (and appetite) that is Sargon, the leader of the Spiegelians. This makes for a refreshing change from the other novels in this collection. It's fun to spend more time on the machinations of the villains, with the heroes as the sidelight.

The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death features alienated teenagers, avocado-obsessed mad scientists, and a plot to replace all of the world's realtors with aliens. Only Daniel Pinkwater could string these together into a coherent whole. Walter Galt and Winston Bingo are typical outcasts at Genghis Khan High School. Their favorite activity is sneaking out ("snarking out") in the middle of the night to go to an all-night movie theater, The Snark. While snarking out, they meet the usual assortment of oddballs populating the evenings and back alleys of a Pinkwater book. In the process, they help foil the scheme of the world's greatest criminal genius and his gang of trained orangutans -- to use an avocado-powered machine to replace realtors with aliens.

There's a common theme of Pinkwater's in The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death; adults who seem initially boring turn out to be very interesting. Walter starts out generally annoyed and bored with his father, but by the end of the book he discovers that his father is a friend of the crazy assortment of characters that Walter has his adventure with. Walter's father, it is strongly hinted, may even secretly be the world's greatest detective, Osgood Sigerson. Walter develops an appreciation for his father, even learning to tolerate avocados (his father is obsessed with them).

The Last Guru, more than the other novels in this collection, reads as a social satire. Harold Blatz, a young boy whose only dream is to bet on a horse race, is used to show how ridiculous social trends and popular culture can become. Harold saves his allowance and chore money for years before he can get his Uncle Roy to place a bet for him. Roy tries to teach him a lesson by betting on a long shot, but Harold wins anyway. The (anywhere but in a Pinkwater book) improbable series of events that follows leads Harold to become the third richest person on the planet, then a recluse in a Tibetan village, then the leading spiritual guru in the world, and then finally back to being an ordinary teenager.

Pinkwater plays on the foibles and habits of adults, using teenagers as the real voices of reason and sense. The Last Guru shows the absurd length that popular trends can reach, as well as how gullible people are. Harold becomes a hugely successful guru simply through better marketing of his services, and because he tells everyone exactly what they want to hear -- that they're all truly enlightened already. Harold alone keeps his head clear -- Pinkwater makes it abundantly evident that Harold is manipulating events precisely to discredit all other "enlightened" gurus. He simply trumps them by giving the people what they want without asking for anything. That is, with the possible exception of getting people to wear silly hats.

In Young Adult Novel, the odd men out aren't the main characters. Though they appear that way for much of the novel, Pinkwater turns the tables on them in the end. The setting is Himmler High School, and the narrator is a member of the Wild Dada Ducks, a group dedicated to the promotion of Dadaism. Convinced that there is no underlying meaning to life, they commit random acts of public art to prove this point.

One of the main activities of the Ducks is an ongoing group novel, Kevin Shapiro, Boy Orphan. This book takes on a new meaning when a boy arrives at school with the same name as the main character of the Ducks' imaginary novel. The Ducks decide to adopt Kevin as the ultimate expression of their Dadaism. However, the joke is on them -- they're so absorbed in their own worldview that they can't comprehend Kevin's reaction and ultimate revenge.

Pinkwater departs from his usual pattern in Young Adult Novel. The adults are still clueless, but the main characters are just as clueless. They simply don't realize it. The Ducks never figure things out, even after their well-deserved comeuppance at the hands of Kevin and the Fanatical Praetorians. Pinkwater is playing games with his own writing style in Young Adult Novel. By mocking the main characters, he's gently poking fun at himself.

Pinkwater uses his rogue's gallery of outcasts and oddballs to highlight the underlying silliness of day-to-day life. At the same time, his misfit characters connect with the reader to make him or her appreciate them and recognize their own shortcomings and difficulties. Using characters from the always-awkward early teen years ensures that each reader can connect with the story. Everyone has some experience of alienation and difficulty from junior high school, allowing an easy empathy with Pinkwater's characters. That's what makes each book such a great read; everyone can see some part of themselves in Leonard, Alan, Walter, or the Wild Dada Ducks.

[Eric Eller]