Thursday, March 24, 2011

Reading "The Pigman" in 2011

When I was in middle school, Paul Zindel was my favorite writer.  I remember liking especially The Undertaker's Gone Bananas and Confessions of a Teenage Baboon.  I think Zindel appealed to me as a 13-year-old reader because in the late 1970s, there were few books written just for teens.  (Lois Duncan was another writer I loved.)  And Zindel's books, even when funny, are always tinged with a hint of darkness, something I found intriguing against the backdrop of my sunny Southern California childhood.

I read Zindel's The Pigman again just last month with my students in a Young Adult literature course.  I was curious as to how Zindel's 70s sensibilities would hold up with today's readers, myself included.  The answer is that--despite some antiquated slang and obsolete objects (a typewriter provides the novel's frame)--The Pigman holds up quite well indeed.

As a reminder, here's the basic plot of The Pigman.  John and Lorraine are two high-school loners who become unlikely friends.  John is good-looking, but wild, while Lorraine is a quiet good girl with self-esteem issues.  Paul and Lorraine spend an afternoon together making crank calls, and as a result of their activities meet Mr. Pignati, the Pigman.

Mr. Pignati is a childlike older man, who enjoys the zoo, encourages John and Lorraine to rollerskate in the house,  and introduces them to new foods, like escargot and chocolate covered ants.  Mr. Pignati also has a secret: He hasn't come to terms with his beloved wife's death and tells the kids she's off visiting a relative.

The truth comes out just before Mr. Pignati has his first heart-attack.  While he's in the hospital, John and Lorraine throw a huge party, complete with drinking, general mayhem, and the borrowing and breaking of Mr. Pignati's beloved objects.  John and Lorraine have a little time to begin making ammends, but before their relationship with the Pigman is healed, the Pigman suffers another heart attack and dies.

It's a brutal little novel, but one that stills reads well today.  Here's what my students and I found in 2011:
  • While the framing device for the story (a project for English class) seems dated (probably because it has been imitated so frequently), the dual narration works.  My female students (27 of 30 are women, it must be noted) found Lorraine's voice in particular to be authentic and compelling.  Here's what they had to say about Zindel's dual narration in The Pigman.
  • The issues Zindel highlights--teenage alienation, problems with adult authority figures, self-esteem issues, and anxiety about growing up--still resonate today
  • The students found the Pigman a realistic and sympathetic character, even though most of them said that their parents were more protective in the 2000s than John and Lorraine's were in the 1970s.
  • One thing I noticed this read round was the power of the party scene.  When I read The Pigman as a child, I understood that John and Lorraine should not have thrown a party in the Pigman's house while he was convalescing in a hospital.  As an adult, it become clear how painful a betrayal that act was.
What do you think of The Pigman in 2011?