To describe a young adult novel (or any novel, I suppose) as “sensitive,” “sincere” and “insightful,” might very well risk sounding as if you’re damning it with faint praise, not unlike recommending someone go on a blind date because the date “has a pleasant personality.” So while Paul Zindel’s classic (if dated … more on that later) book “The Pigman” is indeed sensitive, sincere and insightful, a fair description might start there, but it wouldn’t end there. A story of loneliness, friendship and loss, it is also poignant, humorous and haunting. It’s a book that envelops rather than dazzles the reader in a low-key story that is ultimately all the more resonant for its gentle approach.
Published in 1968, Zindel’s book centers on John and Lorraine, two emotionally isolated high school students whose friendship forms a protective barrier against a world they believe is indifferent at best and hostile at worst. There are hints of attraction between them, but, for the most part, the friendship is so rewarding that they’re wary of asking for more.
Told in chapters alternating between his point of view and hers, the book wisely takes its time letting us settle into John and Lorraine’s activities. To help pass time and release some of their adolescent energy, they occasionally make prank phone calls (hey, I told you this was dated). One day they happen to call one Angelo Pignati, “The Pigman,” an aging widower whose only “friend” is a baboon at the local zoo. So eager for human contact that he’s willing to overlook the obvious nature of the prank, Pignati invites John and Lorraine to come by his house, and thus begins a deceptively simple story of a friendship that is both stronger and more fragile that it appears at any given moment.
As mentioned, the book’s 1968 copyright is evident throughout its pages. Although it may be hard to believe there was ever a world without cell phones, e-mail or MTV, there was, and it’s in that world that the book’s characters struggle between their better natures and their more immediate desires. But if the nature of the world John, Lorraine and The Pigman inhabit seems, at times, hopelessly quaint, their emotional wounds and longings feel as fresh and deep as those of our closest friends . or, more to the point, as our own.
Make no mistake, if you read “The Pigman” today, you will likely roll your eyes at some of the anachronistic touches. But make no mistake, you will also likely feel your heart ache at the way youth and age and exploitation and generosity inevitably collide and reveal the potential and limitations of three confused and complex human beings.
In its power to evoke a universal sense of teenage vulnerability as well as adult disillusion, “The Pigman” earns the right to another descriptive word, even with its occasionally dated scenes and references: timeless.
Quentin Dunne is a psychology graduate student and Mustang Daily book columnist.