Tuesday, November 27, 2012
Pinkwater's books are all odd, all a lovely mixture of sweet and goofball, smart and nutty. They're all deeply pleasurable to sink into, especially if you are -- or were -- one of those weird, quirky kids. But some of them are more than that -- some books, like the sublimely Dada Young Adult Novel, or the two "Snarkout Boys" stories, or the pseudo-autobiographical The Education of Robert Nifkin, see Pinkwater integrate all of his themes and obsessions, from Yiddishkeit to '50s Chicago, from smart outsiders to his own kind of magical realism, and create great, moving novels even more impressive than his usual work. Pinkwater's usual books are a wonder and a lifeline, but his best books are world treasures. And Bushman Lives! is one of the strongest novels of Pinkwater's long career.
Pinkwater's deepest and most resonant novels usually draw from his own life, and Bushman continues that tradition, following the story of teenager Harold Knishke, a smart, fat kid in the Chicago of the 1950s. But Bushman isn't a tightly focused book; it's as much about Harold's friend, the budding sailor Geets Hildebrand, as it is about Harold himself, and even more so, it's a book about being that kind of kid in that time and place, in a Pinkwaterian world full of wonders and oddities. Bushman also slots into the recent sequence of loosely linked Pinkwater novels, from The Neddiad to The Ygyssey to The Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl, with Molly the Dwerg and her friend the Wolluf showing up here as important secondary characters.
As usual with Pinkwater, the plot isn't the point -- that plot, loosely, is "Harold wanders around Chicago, one hot summer, learning about people and starting to get serious about art." It's probably as close to an autobiographical novel as Pinkwater will ever come, but it's not that close; Harold's adventures could only take place in a Pinkwater book, not in the real world. Everything that happens in Bushman is one turn away from the real world, a click or two more heightened than actual reality, in that brighter, more vibrant world we all know from our imaginations.
And Bushman himself? He's a famous gorilla, who lived in Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo from 1930 to his death in 1951. In our world, his skin is stuffed and on display at the Field Museum. But Harold and Geets, in a Pinkwater world just a few years after his "death," insist that he never died, that he escaped from men and their zoos to a better place. And in the world of a Daniel Pinkwater novel, that's not just the answer we want to be true, it's the way to bet.
Bushman Lives! is a wonderful, kaleidoscopic, lovely, deep, thoughtful, silly novel about growing up and figuring out what to do with your life. It will be immeasurably helpful to uncountable young people, as earlier Pinkwater novels have been. And it's also a window into Pinkwater's world, one of the clearest and best-positioned windows yet, to give the rest of us a view of a world more interesting and purposeful and meaningful than our own. To put it more simply: it's one of the best books of one of our best writers.