‘Crazy In Poughkeepsie’, the latest novel from the original writer of books about weird outsider teens
Daniel Pinkwater’s latest book, Crazy in Poughkeepsie, will delight his longtime addicts and provide a funny introduction to his world for anyone stumbling upon him for the first time. The short novel aimed at kids plays like a Pinkwater greatest-hits album: a boy stuck in a dull town, a slightly cracked guru, weird names, and something magical hiding just around the corner of the everyday. And good food, of course.
Pinkwater, for those who don’t know him, has managed to stay on school library shelves since 1970, no small feat in the cutthroat world of children’s publishing. (One publishing insider once told me, in all seriousness, “Those people are brutal.”) He has at least 100 titles to his credit, ranging from picture books to young adult to adult fiction and an essay collection. He has been a commentator for NPR and authored a nationally syndicated cartoon strip.
But mainly he is the patron saint of the geeks who sat in the junior high library at lunch, who didn’t recognize themselves in any of the dramas about big games and school dances. Now there are literally hundreds of books about outsiders solving mysteries in their hometowns, but long before the YA boom, Pinkwater carved out his own niche of weird teens, strange creatures, and semi-mystical experiences.
In Lizard Music, a boy named Victor is ditched by his parents and older sister and gets to spend a few weeks in the summer staying up late, which is how he discovers an advanced civilization of lizards living near him. In The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, three teens who sneak out to an all-night movie theater learn about an invasion of alien realtors and a battle between the World’s Greatest Detective and his mad-scientist nemesis. In Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars, a portly loner named Leonard finds a friend who claims to be a Martian, and a riot ensues at their school between believers and non-believers.
He’s written about a kid who becomes the world’s richest person and finds out he’s the reincarnation of a high lama (The Last Guru). In clear, simple prose, he writes about smart, slightly lonely kids who encounter giant worms, alien cooking competitions, and highly intelligent chickens.
For me, he was a gateway drug to Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, and Thomas Pynchon. My own kids loved Pinkwater when I read his books to them, even if my daughter did think Walter Cronkite was a fictional character in Lizard Music. His jokes after reduced him to gasping laughter, and they once nearly “snarked out” in the middle of the night. (We caught them before they began wandering the streets of Los Angeles in the dark.)
Any new release by Pinkwater, now 80, is a cause for celebration, since his prolific output can be hard to find in print. (He’s occasionally lamented his publishers’ inability to actually market or sell his books.) If there were more justice in the world, he’d have the cash and movie deals of Stephenie Myers or Rick Riordan. But he remains famous under the radar, a hero to the writers and readers who know him.
Crazy in Poughkeepsie is the rest of the world’s latest chance to catch up.
In the book, Pinkwater introduces us to Mick, a basically decent kid whose brother Maurice is kind of a slacker. Maurice goes to Tibet in hopes of gaining superpowers, and finds the Guru Lumpo Smythe-Finkel, who tells him to go back to community college instead. The guru returns with Maurice to Poughkeepsie and crashes in Mick’s room. Then they eventually go on a quest to find the resting place for a ghost of a whale.
But don’t call any of this weird. Pinkwater tweeted just a couple weeks ago that his stories aren’t weird. He says he sees the world as it is, without the thin laminate of normality we all pretend is real.
And he’s got a point. There are no pitched battles with an evil wizard, no hot-and-heavy dates with vampires, no demigods. His stories exist in a world where kids still play outside, take the bus downtown without adult supervision, and nobody stares at their phones. When he began writing, way back in the 20th Century, this was more or less reality. Now it’s almost a fantasy setting in itself.
Even so, Pinkwater’s world is more recognizable than any of the apocalyptic futures where teenagers battle a high-tech dictatorship. The weirdness in his books just sort of happens, without much fanfare, while his characters go about their lives.
Pinkwater’s villains—such as they are—are too absurd to be very scary, but he reserves his real pity and horror for the people cut off from what’s happening right in front of them. They’re like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They go through the motions of human life, but they aren’t quite alive.
Maybe that’s what Pinkwater means; maybe we’d see what he does if we’d get out of the damned house once in a while.
As the Guru Lumpo Smythe-Finkel says, “This little journey has opened you to stuff that was all around you, only you weren’t able to see it.”
Or maybe not. Pinkwater seems to be against gurus, in general. Maybe the real moral of his stories is that we all have to find our own paths, whether we’re stuck in our little suburban backyards, or traveling with ghosts in an old circus wagon.
Either way, Crazy in Poughkeepsie is a good place to start.