How Daniel Pinkwater Became My Own Personal Guru
My girlfriend hates “Car Talk,” so I was listening alone while doing the breakfast dishes one weekend late last summer when Tom and Ray started pattering about airline seats that are too narrow for wide butts.
“We need another unit of measurement for butt size,” said Tom — or maybe Ray, who knows. “We have to name it after someone with a huge butt. Who do you think?”
“How about Daniel Pinkwater?” Ray/Tom said. The brothers laughed insanely. “How many Pinkwaters are you?” Ray/Tom asked. “I think I’m about point six,” Tom/Ray said.
Daniel Pinkwater, 72, is a onetime Fumetti model, an art therapy school dropout, a former Zen Buddhist, a former cult member, a former NPR commentator, a former sculptor, the alleged destructor of Harvey Kurtzman’s Help! Magazine, a gentleman farmer, a decent chess player, a bad minder of friends’ girlfriends, a surrealist, a bohemian, and an old schoolmate of Errol Flynn’s son. He looks like a bald Allan Sherman, if that means anything to you. (It doesn’t mean much to him. “I do remember Alan Sherman. Mildly amusing,” he told me.) His father was a Jewish gangster from Warsaw, about his mother he has mostly bad things to say, his wife Jill Pinkwater is a writer, and he has the greatest radio voice you’ve ever heard, Carl Kasell included.
Daniel Pinkwater is also a writer of novels for kids, and the most perfect manufacturer of weird and absurd stories this side of Karel Čapek (with whom he seems to share a thing for lizards) or maybe Douglas Adams (with whom he shares an interest in sardonic aliens and travel through spacetime).
I knew none of this when I heard Tom and Ray talking about Pinkwater’s butt. All I knew about Daniel Pinkwater, or all I remembered, was something he wrote about thumbs and baked potatoes.
We listened to his 1982 novel “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death” in the car one summer when I was a kid. I only recall pieces of it — two boys and a girl named Rat hang out at an all-night movie theater, meet all sorts of weirdos, and save the day. Somehow the kids wind up at a bohemian fantasy diner called Beanbender’s, which, like all fast food restaurants in Daniel Pinkwater’s books, sounds like the greatest place in the world. I haven’t found the book — Pinkwater’s stuff has a tendency to go out of print — but there’s an excerpt online with the bit about the baked potatoes. It goes like this:
“Beanbender poked a hole in one end with his thumb, slapped in a hunk of butter, salted and peppered the potato, wrapped it in a napkin, and handed it to me… The potato was almost too hot to hold, and the salty butter dribbled onto my sleeve.”
Now imagine that read in the voice of a Jewish Buddha from Chicago and drool. But though I drooled at the memory that August morning, I would have forgotten about Pinkwater all over again if I hadn’t crashed my bike.
One day 40 years ago, Manus Pinkwater decided to ask his cult’s guru for a new name.
The guru lived somewhere in Asia. Manus Pinkwater lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, in a loft. He had never met the guru. The guru said he had the power to divine a person’s true name. Manus wrote to him.
The guru wrote back. “Your name should begin with ‘D,’” he told Manus. Pinkwater sent a reply suggesting some “D” names. He included “Duck” as an option, just to test the guru. The guru’s next letter informed Manus Pinkwater that his name would be Daniel.
Manus Pinkwater told his mother that his name was Daniel. She started calling him Daniel. So did everyone else.
Pinkwater had already started writing kids’ books by the time he got his new name, but writing was one among many sidelines. He and his wife had published a book about dog training, and ran the Super Puppy Training School and Dog Kindergarten on the ground floor of an old newspaper building they owned. Pinkwater had also been studying to be an art therapist, though he dropped that after discovering that he hated the work. “I couldn’t say, ‘It’s your goddamn family, just move out and see them once a year!’ You can’t say that,” Pinkwater said. “You have to wait until they think of it themselves.”
‘I couldn’t bring myself to put on a black bathrobe and chant in a language foreign to me.’
He went to his first cult meeting with a young art therapy client. The kid never went back, but Pinkwater was interested. He had previously been a member of the First Zen Institute of America, an Upper West Side Buddhist group, but gave it up because rituals were too much like the Judaism of his youth. “I couldn’t bring myself to put on a black bathrobe and chant in a language foreign to me,” Pinkwater said. “I had already had a little bit of that as a kid.” (Pinkwater says he was such a terrible bar mitzvah student that the Scottish rabbi his father hired decided to forgo the Hebrew instruction and instead teach him how to play chess.)
The new cult, though, had a certain vacuity that appealed to Pinkwater. “The thing seemed to be contentless,” Pinkwater said. “I just wanted the straight energy.”
Pinkwater kept going back to the meetings. So did his wife. He got so good at meditation that he found he didn’t need Novocain at the dentist anymore. And he really liked his new name. “My personality changed. Just having a different handle, I discovered I was perceiving myself as a slightly, not tremendously, different person,” he said. “Less of a sonofabitch.”
He figured that there was some scam at the heart of the cult, but it didn’t bother him. “The quality of the rip-off was so minor you could ignore it,” he said. Notes in the cult newsletter asked members who happened to be traveling to the Asian country where the guru lived to bring along a spare muffler for the guru’s Mercedes.
Later, after his wife was made a leader of the cult’s chapter in the Long Island town where they moved to from Hoboken, Pinkwater and Jill decided they had had enough. “The amount of superstition and nonsense got boring,” Pinkwater said. “I didn’t need them anymore.”
My bike accident happened about an hour after I finished the dishes. I took a taxi home and tried not to bleed onto the seat.
The next afternoon, having given up on biking for a while, I took the subway out to Bay Ridge for a walk. I futzed with my iPhone while waiting for the train. Thinking about Tom/Ray and Ray/Tom, I searched the iTunes store for Daniel Pinkwater. A fog lifted.
Pinkwater has a podcast. It’s called the “Pinkwater Podcast,” hosted by a medical doctor who calls himself Webmaster Ed. Since 2008, over the course of 300 episodes, Pinkwater has serialized himself reading dozens of his novels. I started downloading.
I listened to “Yobgorgle: The Mystery Monster of Lake Ontario” (1979) on that first walk, a novel about a boy who goes to spend the summer with his fat, fast food-obsessed uncle in Rochester and falls in with a professor who takes him on an expedition to find a sea monster named Yobgorgle, who turns out to be a submarine shaped like a pig. There’s an incredible interlude about a millionaire named Colonel Ken Krenwinkle who hunts cars by ramming them with a Duesenberg. The whole thing was transcendent, and I downloaded another book.
Pinkwater became a writer by accident.
At Bard, the little liberal arts school on the Hudson River where he went to college, the kids who said they wanted to be writers spent their time talking about the movie stars they would meet and sleep with once they were famous. Pinkwater wasn’t so interested in movie stars.
He had gone to high school at the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, a prep school full of movie stars’ kids. His best friend was Errol Flynn’s son Sean. Flynn was bad with children. Pinkwater remembers going to see Flynn in “Kim” (1950) with Sean and thinking that they were both having the same thought about the man on the screen: “God, I wish my father was like that.” (Sean, a photojournalist, disappeared in Cambodia in 1970. Flynn died in 1959, reportedly in the company of a 17-year-old girl he had been dating since she was 15.
After college, Pinkwater moved to New York to become an artist. Art ran in the Pinkwater family. Pinkwater’s uncle Berel, who appears, thinly disguised, in more than one of Pinkwater’s novels, owned a movie camera. Pinkwater’s father and Berel used it to shoot films. Pinkwater gets all giggly when he talks about these movies. Berel, the story goes, was told by the man who sold him the camera that, when filming a person, you should get the whole figure, including the feet. Berel apparently misunderstood the direction and became fixated on shooting feet. Finally, Berel and Pinkwater’s father spread out Berel’s footage on the dining room table and spliced together a two-hour movie called “Feet.” “They would show this and they would give this accompanying harangue like,” — at this point in the telling Pinkwater adopts an old man’s Yiddish accent — “‘Look whose feets are those, those are Aunt Sadie’s! Look, look there’s your feet, sonny!’”
Berel also shot a film he called “Skies, 1949.” “He took a shot of the sky in every state in the Union,” Pinkwater said. “Not labeled. Just spliced together.”
These films are described more than once in Pinkwater’s novels. “This stuff’s too good not to use,” he said.
Back in Warsaw, the Pinkwater — then Pinkwasser — brothers had been gangsters. Their scam, as Pinkwater understands it, was to hijack Jewish merchants’ goods, then ransom them back. Pinkwater imagines his father back in Warsaw as Benya Krik, the gangster king from Isaac Babel’s “Odessa Tales.” Krik is ruthless but just, loved by the Odessa Jews even as he robs them. When a police raid threatens to ruin his sister’s wedding, Krik has the police station burned down.
In real life, as Pinkwater tells it, Pinkwater’s father left Warsaw at gunpoint. Warsaw’s Jews pooled their funds to buy him a train ticket, then had armed men escort him to the station. It’s not clear whether he remained a gangster after coming to America. His putative trade was in rags, and Pinkwater says he doesn’t think his father was a criminal during their years in Chicago or Los Angeles. Still, he tells stories that suggest that his father’s business involved tough-guy aspects. One Saturday, while playing around his father’s desk, young Pinkwater found two blackjacks, those small elastic clubs used to knock out detectives in 1940s radio dramas. Pinkwater asked his father why he needed two blackjacks. “The black one with the grey suit, the brown one with the blue suit,” Pinkwater’s father said.
“People were afraid of him,” Pinkwater said.
I bought an engagement ring in October, just as my interest in Pinkwater was developing into an obsession. My girlfriend and I had had been living together for five years by then, and everyone was getting impatient.
When we first moved in together, we still marked time by the academic calendar, and our one-year lease felt like a long-term commitment. There must have been a moment when we transitioned from being kids playing house to grown-ups with an apartment, but I missed it. Maybe it was when we stopped using blue plastic crates salvaged from my brother’s closet as a pantry, or when we got enough glasses to not make dinner guests drink out of mugs, or when we bought a salad spinner.
In the early fall, though, a handful of factors had converged to make me feel like growing up could no longer be put off. My grandfather had died in April, my parents had both just turned 60, and Emily and I were getting close to 30. I went out and bought a ring. I also started listening to a ton of Daniel Pinkwater.
In real life, Pinkwater’s father left Warsaw at gunpoint.
I walked down Fifth Avenue in Sunset Park on a Sunday evening, to Boss Tweed’s grave in Green-Wood Cemetery, through Borough Park. I listened to “The Worms of Kukumlima” (1981), about a boy and his grandfather who fly to Africa with a nutty explorer to find a valley filled with huge sentient worms. I listened to “Slaves of Spiegel” (1982), about a boy and the nutty owner of a fast food restaurant, who are abducted to the planet Spiegel and forced to compete in a fast food cooking contest. I listened to “The Last Guru” (1980), about a boy who places a bet on a horserace through his uncle, becomes the richest person in the world, goes to live with a nutty fast food millionaire in a castle, moves to Tibet, is recognized as the reincarnation of the founder of the Silly Hat Order and absconded to a remote monastery, achieves spiritual perfection, and then returns home to blow his fortune showing up fake gurus. (Pinkwater wrote that one while still a member of the cult. Some of his fellow cult members thought it was a little close to home.)
The plots of all of these books were basically the same: Smart, mildly misfit, possibly fat boy with lamebrain parents teams up with an unattached older male relative, meets a nutty fraudster-type, eats lots of great-sounding junk food, goes on an adventure. Locations recur, too: Chicago, Hoboken, Rochester and the invented Hogboro and Baconburg. The name MacTavish turns up a lot, as does the name Ken, as do fat people and chickens.
The appeal was partially in the feeling that I had discovered a real-life Kilgore Trout, a prolific, under-appreciated pulp genius. (In an interview with Terry Gross on “Fresh Air” in 2004, before Kurt Vonnegut died, Gross asked Pinkwater if he had ever been disappointed after meeting an author he admired. Pinkwater said he had. “I’m not going to mention any names. Kurt Vonnegut,” he said. “Let’s hope he’s not listening right now!” Gross laughed. “Let’s hope he is!” Pinkwater said.)
But it was also a nostalgic escape. I was getting ready to tell the world that I was an adult, but in the meantime I was a boy swimming through Pinkwater’s fantasies.
I spent the summer and fall submerged.
It wasn’t exactly in the artistic spirit of Uncle Berel that young Pinkwater decided to pursue art in New York City.
As far as I can tell, Pinkwater’s early artistic ambitions were not at all absurd. An enigmatic photo of a young Pinkwater at Bard in a sculpture studio shows a young man, unsmiling, not quite fat, working on something wooden. Pinkwater pursued printmaking, too, and was able to sell some pieces, mostly to an older couple that collected his work and tried to set him up with girls.
What absurdity was missing from Pinkwater’s art, however, flourished in his social life. While accompanying a friend’s unfaithful girlfriend to a party in the mid-1960s, Pinkwater was approached by soon-to-be Monty Python member Terry Gilliam, then working for Help!, a short-lived humor magazine created by Mad magazine founder Harvey Kurtzman. “You’re the guy I’m looking for,” Gilliam told Pinkwater.
Help! specialized in a long-forgotten form called the Fumetti, a comic strip illustrated with photographs instead of drawings. Gilliam wanted Pinkwater to play a character named Inspector Fermez LaBouche in a couple of twisted “Slylock Fox”-style spoofs that asked readers to solve silly mysteries. In “The Marionette Murder Case,” which appeared in the September 1965 issue of Help!, Pinkwater is done up like Poirot, or maybe Thomson and Thompson from “Tintin,” with a bowler and a cigarette in a long holder. The murderer is revealed to be a Frankenstein puppet, who is actually a midget in disguise.
The Fumetti itself, though, is a footnote to the car ride on the way to the photo shoot. If the Volkswagen convertible had crashed on the Triborough Bridge on the way out to the shoot that day, neither the Spanish Inquisition nor huge cartoon asses would ever have become funny. Driving the car was Kurtzman, whose Mad Magazine is the foundational text of postwar American humor. Kurtzman’s gofer, also in the car, was R. Crumb, the comix genius whose Zap Comix would, three years later, introduce the weird psychedelic aesthetic that defined hippie art. Gilliam would go onto collaborate on Monty Python. And there was Pinkwater, along for the ride, perhaps already dressed in his Poirot bowler.
It was the Yalta Conference of Anglosphere absurdity, a magical collision of geniuses of the absurd. According to Pinkwater, it was awful.
“Kurtzman was a monster. He was horrible,” Pinkwater said, describing the experience. “Crumb is shy or taciturn or miserable. Gilliam is in his own world.”
They didn’t keep in touch. The September issue was Help!’s last. Pinkwater says he only heard from Gilliam one more time, when Gilliam called to say it was Pinkwater’s fault that the magazine had closed.
I’m not prepared to lay out a complete taxonomy of Pinkwater’s books. Amazon lists a hundred titles under his name. I’ve only read or listened to 20 or so. Still, it’s possible to group his novels into a couple of general silos.
First are his adventure books, the ones with the boys and the nutty older men who take them on journeys to find lizards or pigs or worms. Next there are the high school books, like “The Education of Robert Nifkin” (1998) and “Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars” (1979), books set in high schools where everyone but the narrator is an awful fascist or a robot. Finally there are the newest books, a sequence of insane shaggy dog stories that defy description and resemble only each other in form and content.
Pinkwater stretches his formulae as needed. “The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death” and “The Snarkout Boys and the Baconburg Horror” (1985) and “Looking for Bobowicz” (2004) add a girl compatriot to the adventure story mix. “Wingman” (1991) demotes the high school kid to elementary school, makes him Chinese-American, and gives him a non-monstrous father.
Where Pinkwater’s mastery is most on display, however, is in the books where he takes his already weird patterns and flips them into something super weird. “Young Adult Novel” (1982) is a high school story gone haywire, in which a quiet loner raises a student army against the narrator and his wiseass friends. And then there’s “Borgel” (1990), perhaps Pinkwater’s greatest, an adventure involving a boy and an ancient relative that turns into a trans-dimensional spiritual journey and culminates in an encounter with the godhead, which is a popsicle.
I traveled to Spain for work in the late fall, an engagement ring hidden in my luggage. Emily was going to meet me at the end of my trip. I downloaded a bunch of Pinkwater audiobooks to listen to while I traveled. I also had a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge,” a wildly paranoid novel that turned out to be a good companion to Pinkwater’s “Lizard Music” (1976), which I listened to alone in Spanish hotels.
“Lizard Music,” which Pinkwater says is one of his favorites, is about a boy ditched at home by his vacationing parents who catches a strange late-night TV broadcast that leads him and a nutty hobo named the Chicken Man to a floating island filled with chicken-worshipping lizards. Reissued by The New York Review Children’s Collection in 2011, it is rare among Pinkwater’s older novels in that it is relatively easy to find in libraries and book stores. It can function as a Pynchon-for-kids (depending, I guess, on your reading of Pynchon) in which the paranoiacs are mostly right and those with power — that is, grown-ups — are lying. “Lizard Music” is a great book, and belongs on every shelf.
I asked Emily to marry me in Morocco. She was surprised, and she said yes, and we were happy.
When we got home, I wrote a really long article about my Spain trip. Partway through, bored of thinking about Spanish Jews, I emailed Pinkwater’s agent to ask for an interview. That afternoon I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. “This is Daniel Pinkwater,” Daniel Pinkwater said. He had heard I wanted to do a profile about him.
“My profile is practically spherical,” he told me. “From all angles, it’s round.”
When they lived in Chicago, Pinkwater’s father would sometimes go to an old wooden synagogue in a bad neighborhood where the Jews from Warsaw prayed. “On his way home he would pick up some nice sliced baked ham,” Pinkwater said. “Sometimes I think he would be in the neighborhood to get the ham and just drop into the shul.”
Pinkwater’s father’s name had been Raful when he was growing up in Warsaw. It changed to Felix while he was waiting in England for his boat to New York, then settled finally as Philip in Ellis Island. He spoke Yiddish, Polish, Russian, German and English. When Pinkwater imitates him, he goes all old world and guttural, tossing in a bit of Yiddish where it’s funny. Pinkwater’s books are full of those sorts of Yiddish mini-jokes. In “The Neddiad: How Neddie Took the Train, Went to Hollywood, and Saved Civilization” (2007), a movie star named Aaron Finn — a thinly veiled Errol Flynn — asks, “What’s the emmis?” (The mini-joke there being a man with an Irish name using a Yiddish word.) In “Adventures of a Cat-Whiskered Girl” (2007), a giant named Harold complains, while rowing, about the “Fershlugginer currents.” (The mini-joke being a mythical creature using a Yiddish word; the subtlety lying in the fact of the total co-option of the word “fershlugginer” by Mad Magazine, such that it takes some discernment to know that the word is Yiddish and not an invention of Kurtzman’s.) In “Lizard Music,” Pinkwater names a character Shane Ferguson. (This one’s a more complicated mini-joke that Pinkwater has explained in a number of interviews. The name is a reference to the Yiddish phrase shoyn fergessen, which means, “I already forgot.” It’s also a nod to an old joke about a Jew who tells the guy at Ellis Island that he had forgotten what he planned to say his name was, and winds up with the Yiddish phrase as his Irish-sounding name.)
‘Kurtzman was a monster. He was horrible.’
When Pinkwater was a young man, his father brought him to Warsaw on an emergency visit to smuggle cash to a close relative. They flew to Prague, and then on to Warsaw. “We get off the airplane and he speaks to the first Pole he sees, and I see on the Pole’s face the same expression I would see when he spoke English to people,” Pinkwater said. The Polish-speaker seemed to understand what Philip was saying, but he looked like he wasn’t sure exactly what language he was saying it in. Pinkwater realized that, even back in Poland, his father was forever a foreigner.
Pinkwater, too, felt like a sort of foreigner. Oddness came naturally to him, and he cultivated his eccentricity. Once, in high school, he played hooky for a month straight with a friend just to play chess. (“I got scared and went back. He got a job parking cars, and I think he’s still there.”)
One night at his house in Long Island, Pinkwater was lying in bed with his wife when she turned to him and told him she had bought the horses. “What horses?” Daniel asked. “The mother and foal,” Jill said. “What are you talking about?” Daniel asked. “We discussed this,” Jill said. “When did we discuss this?” “The other night.” “Where were we when we were discussing this?” “Here in bed.” “Did I say anything?” “Yeah, you said it would be fine.”
They needed a place to put the horses, so the Pinkwaters moved to the Hudson Valley, where they bought a farm. One day, while settling into his new town, Daniel was visiting with a car repair guy, who happened to be Jewish. “I get along extremely well with my Christian customers and neighbors,” the car guy said. “But I’ll drive an hour out my way to go to a Jewish shop, because why should I give my money to these shit heads?”
Pinkwater knew that the mechanic was trying to bond. Pinkwater wasn’t into it. “You know what, I don’t buy that, either,” he said. “I’m outside of that, too. It’s my pleasure to be outside. I’m not a joiner.” He paused. “Even though I was in a cult.”
Talking with Pinkwater was a blast. I had read and listened to so many of his books by then that they had all mashed together in my brain as one big pleasant memory. Being on the phone with him was like being part of one of his stories.
I had asked to meet in person, but Pinkwater explained over email that he preferred to speak over the phone. “This is because I am so very polite,” he wrote. “If we meet face-to-face, and I get bored, or feel like taking a nap, naturally I can’t get away from you. And if you came here, we’d have to offer you coffee or tea, and a snack, and then you’d start playing with the dogs, and who knew you were going to bring your girlfriend, and a photographer? Pretty soon the sun is going down, and you’re still here. ‘Mmmm, that soup smells good,’ you say. What are we going to do, send you and your girlfriend, and the photographer, and your editor, and your little sister who is visiting from college, out into the cold, without something in your stomachs? Wait! Is that a blizzard starting up? Of course, spend the night. What do you like for breakfast?”
That sounded reasonable. He called me at 1 p.m. on a Thursday. We talked about the cult first. He wouldn’t tell me the cult’s name, for fear that they might still exist and that someone might join because of him. “I could see it going terribly wrong,” he said.
Pinkwater either steals liberally from his life for his books or was passing off inventions from his books as his own life. Either way, much of what he told me was familiar: the stories about his uncle’s surrealist films (from “Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars”), the stories about his gangster father (from “The Education of Robert Nifkin”), the stories about Sean Flynn (from “The Neddiad”).
Pinkwater said that his start in publishing was a fluke. He met a woman at a party; they got to talking. She was a children’s book editor. He invited her to his studio to see work by a Tanzanian artist’s cooperative he was trying to help out. She saw his own work and said he should illustrate a book. She asked if he knew any writers. He said he would try writing himself.
He got a $1,500 advance for that first book, “The Terrible Roar” (1970), which was a lot of money then. He found a list of children’s book publishers in a trade magazine. There were 47. He started to make his way down the list.
“It was a goof,” Pinkwater told me. “I was a beatnik, I found a scam. They’re fun to do and they pay you up front.”
Pinkwater’s career continued, more or less without trajectory. His books sold enough to get him deals for decades, but nothing blew up. Hollywood has yet to make a Pinkwater movie. “He sells well enough, yet has delivered no Potter, not even a Traveling Pant,” the author Larry Doyle wrote in a review of a 2009 Pinkwater offering in the New York Times’ Sunday Book Review. “His writing is widely and deeply admired, but none of his books have reached canonical status.”
Pinkwater’s nearest brush with celebrity came in 2012, when a standardized test given to eighth graders across New York State asked students to read a bastardized version of an absurd parody of Aesop from “Borgel,” and then answer multiple choice questions about it. The questions, still available on the New York State Education Department’s website, are hilarious: “When the moose said that the pineapple has some trick up its sleeve, he means that the pineapple: A) is wearing a disguise, B) wants to show the animals a trick, C) has a plan to fool the animals, D) is going to pull something out of its sleeve.”
The questions were apparently less funny to the bewildered students, whose parents complained to the Wall Street Journal. And the Daily News. And the New York Times. And the New Yorker. And NPR. And the New York State Board of Regents. There was a fuss, and the questions weren’t counted toward students’ final scores.
Still, when you search for Pinkwater online, lots of the results on the first few pages have to do with this short passage — a passage that, as anyone who has read “Borgel,” or heard Pinkwater read “Borgel,” will tell you, is much funnier in the context of the novel.
Aside from the Talk of the Town piece about the pineapple quiz, Pinkwater has appeared in just one New Yorker story, when he was quoted praising Steve Charney, a ventriloquist who was the subject of a 1985 profile. “I think it’s primitive and juvenile and absolutely perfect,” Pinkwater said of Charney’s humor.
As it happens, I, too, was a huge Steve Charney fan. Charney is the former host of a radio show called “Knock On Wood” that played on some upstate stations in the 1990s and early 2000s. If the nostalgia Pinkwater evokes for me is based mostly on a single unforgettable passage about baked potatoes, nostalgia for Charney spans infinite car rides and August afternoons. His kids’ comedy show starred Harry, a wooden dummy, and Charney, who whined in a sedate public radio tone as the anarchic puppet defied him. It was Edgar Bergen by way of Renée Montagne. Dumb, wonderful stuff.
I reached Charney on the phone while he was out walking his dog. He told me that he and Pinkwater had once been close friends, though they had fallen out of touch. They first met through Charney’s show, when Pinkwater wrote in to the station to complain that Charney was reading his book over the air and not crediting him.
Charney said that he and Pinkwater shared a sense of humor. “We both talk to kids on their level, instead of trying to educate them.” Charney said. “Maybe it’s because neither one of us had children, so we never grew up.”
I wondered if that was right — if Pinkwater’s wackiness was a symptom of an endless childhood. Pinkwater talks like he’s still a bohemian, but he works hard to portray himself as not having worked that hard. He told me that he wanted his epitaph to be a testament to his purported laziness: “The trick I’m proudest of, the thing I would have engraved on my urn, would be, ‘He did just enough to stay above water and not more.’”
‘It was a goof. I was a beatnik. I found a scam.’
It’s funny, but it’s not true. These books don’t come from the air. Take the four-novel series Pinkwater started publishing in 2007 with “The Neddiad” that reads like a last wild fusillade. The books are Pinkwater on speed — all the weird, silly fantasy jammed together on episodic journeys between parallel planes of existence and time-space continua. They’re energetic and inventive, and challenging for the reader who has a hard time slipping into his flow. Whatever Charney says, they’re not childish, and neither is he.
Pinkwater told me that he may not publish any more novels. In March, he started tweeting what looked like the beginning of a sequel to “Lizard Music.” He says it got the attention of an editor, but that the editor’s bosses eventually passed. He might e-publish it on his own, or tweet the rest of it, or not.
In the meantime, Pinkwater is on Social Security, and he gets pension from the radio actors’ union for some commercials he did for Ford. “I saved my money and lived modestly,” he said. “Now I’m in the clear. I can do as I please. Or not.”
Being engaged didn’t stop my Pinkwater obsession. After the interview, I spent even more time thinking about his work. I found digital copies of the issues of Help! Magazine in which he had been featured, then bought an Isaac Babel collection to read the Benya Krik stories he had referenced.
I started to write about Pinkwater after we spoke in February, but there were other projects to finish, and I got distracted. In the meantime, Emily and I started spending lots of energy procrastinating wedding planning. The event seemed impossibly, overwhelmingly adult. We got twisted up in infinite questions about timing and guests and venues, and we couldn’t get started.
Blame need not be apportioned evenly here: I’m a much better procrastinator than Emily. The best evidence of that, perhaps, is in the fact that it took me going away on a reporting trip to Maine to resolve the planning blockage. By the time I got back we had a date, and things were moving.
My story about Pinkwater, though, still wasn’t done. As the months passed, Pinkwater felt like less of a priority. By the time I got to it again in July, I had had to renew my eight-book-high stack of Pinkwater books from the Brooklyn Public Library about a dozen times, and I realized I was feeling a little Pinkwatered out.
I was over a month behind on listening to new episodes of the “Pinkwater Podcast,” then nearly done with its serialization of “Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars.” When I picked up an unread Pinkwater book from my desk, “The Artsy Smartsy Club” (2005), I put it down again after a few pages.
I wondered what had changed. I didn’t feel any more grown-up. The process of registering for wedding gifts made that clear: A muffin tray? Linen napkins? We had just gotten around to buying that salad spinner. Whose house were we outfitting? Still, life was moving forward, and I would have the muffin tray and the folding chairs and the linen napkins. Months earlier my dive into Pinkwater’s stories had seemed an escape. I wasn’t sure I needed it anymore.
My submersion had been based, in part, on a misunderstanding of Pinkwater and his work. I had read “Yobgorgle” and “Borgle” and “Lizard Music” and the other masterpieces as subversive critiques of adulthood. The grown-ups are dumb or strange in Pinkwater’s books, the kids right-headed and open. It seemed Peter Pan-ish, the perfect message with which to escape the particular anxieties that dogged me in late 2013.
After talking with Pinkwater, though, I don’t think that’s what he intended. Pinkwater is more interested in alienation generally than in childhood specifically. The youth of his protagonists is a symptom of their status as outsiders. Pinkwater is constitutionally a loner, and his books are about the virtue of holding the crowd at arm’s length. Adulthood is a species of conformity that Pinkwater distrusts, but it’s conformity broadly, not adulthood specifically, that is his theme.
Toward the end of our conversation in February, I asked Pinkwater whether he still had a spiritual practice, decades after leaving his cult. He said he did.
“Every morning I have my breakfast and then I take my dog and we get in the car and we go to a lovely place,” he told me. “We see things and we experience movement. The dog pees, I don’t. The dog sniffs things. Me, not so much. And we look out over the river at some point, we look at the Catskills in the distance, and she gets a cookie. And we come home. Restored, refreshed, advanced, and having communed with whatever that thing is.”
For me, last year, that thing was Daniel Pinkwater.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He has recently written about his quest to claim Spanish citizenship and his great-grandfather the Potato King. You can reach him at [email protected], or on Twitter at @joshnathankazis