Public Information Campaign for Read-Aloud: Follow-up
Children's Literacy Round-Up: March 16

The Pigman: Paul Zindel

Book: The Pigman
Author: Paul Zindel
Pages: 166
Age Range: 13 and up 

The PigmanBackground: My young cousin from New Jersey recommended that I read The Pigman. This young adult novel was published in 1968, but I don't believe that I ever read it as a teen. I'm happy to have now rectified that omission. It is a true classic.

Review: The Pigman, by Paul Zindel, is the story of two somewhat alienated teens who become friends with, and are changed by, a lonely old man named Angelo Pignati (aka The Pigman). As the book begins, the reader learns that Mr. Pignati has died and that friends John and Lorraine bear at least some responsibility for his death. To help themselves cope with this, John and Lorraine have chosen to write down their story ("the facts, and only the facts about our experiences with Mr. Angelo Pignati"), using alternating, first-person chapters.

John and Lorraine's friendship with each other is somewhat surprising. John is popular and attractive, a rebel who drinks and smokes too much, and has been known to set off bombs in the school bathroom. He's a thorn in the side of his older, beaten down parents, unable to live up to the standard set by his conformist older brother. Lorraine is a bit overweight, emotionally crippled by her single mother's toxic criticism, and clearly very bright. She's usually the one who pulls John back from destructive behavior (or tries to). The alternating chapters allow the reader to see their developing relationship from both sides.

Lorraine and John's friendship with Mr. Pignati is even more surprising. He's this painfully lonely, isolated guy whose closest friend is a baboon at the local zoo. They meet him through a fluke (a prank call, of all things, in the days before caller ID). But neither John nor Lorraine is able to resist his infectious smile, or the fact that he likes to buy them things, and do things for them. Eventually, the three form an odd little family unit, a dynamic that works, at least at first, to all of their benefit. Unfortunately, this doesn't last (this is clear from the start of the book).

The thing that strikes me most about this book is the depth of characterization. I have a hard time believing that John and Lorraine, and even Mr. Pignati, aren't real. They feel real, right down to being sometimes annoying, making mistakes, and showing surprising vulnerability. Here are a couple of examples:

"I stood on the corner day after day with all the kids, and nobody talked to me. I made believe I was interested in looking at the trees and houses and clouds and stray dogs and whatever--anything not to let on how lonesome I felt inside." (Page 12, Lorraine)

"That's how it always is. Lorraine remembers the big words, and I remember the action. Which sort of makes sense when you stop to think that Lorraine is going to be a famous writer and I'm going to be a great actor. Lorraine thinks she could be an actress, but I keep telling her she'd have to be a character actress, which means playing washerwomen on TV detective shows all the time. And I don't mean that as a distortion, like she always says I do. If anyone distorts, it's the mother of hers. The way her old lady talks you'd think Lorraine needed internal plastic surgery and seventeen body braces, but if you ask me, all she needs is a little confidence." (Page 17, John)

"When Angelo Pignati came to the door, I wish you could have seen him. He was in his late fifties and was pretty big, and he had a bit of a beer stomach. But the part the slaughtered me was this great big smile on his face. He looked so glad to see us I thought his eyes were going to twinkle out of his head." (Page 23, John)

Reading this book as an adult, I was very conscious of it being a book published in the 60's. Not so much in the details of the setting (though you probably won't find a 2009 YA novel in which an old man invites two teens into his home and gives them alcohol on a regular basis, and no one really notices), but in having the feel of an early-generation young adult novel. The minor juvenile delinquency, the near-complete estrangement from parents, the "us against the world" bubble of the characters, and the overt analysis of people's motives and weaknesses all contributed to this impression. I still think that The Pigman will be a hit with today's teens (my cousin is a case in point), because many of the themes are timeless. But the book has a vibe to it that reminds me of the young adult books that I read when I was a teenager.

In any event, I enjoyed The Pigman. It's a book that will make the reader think, and feel understood. I'm glad that it's still in print, and I look forward to reading the sequel, The Pigman's Legacy.

Publisher: HarperTrophy
Publication Date: 1968 (reissue date for this paperback 2005)
Source of Book: Bought it

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.