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Reviews Thu Aug 22 2013
This is the first in a series of reviews of fiction by Chicago authors. These books are chosen by YOU (and, well, me). To suggest a title I should review, comment here, tweet me @edenrobins and/or use the hashtag #faveChicagobooks!
When I was a kid, the world was kind of a disappointment. Back then, playing pretend was serious. It was boot camp. It was the training I knew I'd need to one day inhabit the glorious, magical, hidden worlds that would inevitably reveal themselves. Any day, I thought. Any day.
I can't remember when I stopped searching for magical hidden worlds, but I think my life is poorer for it. And this is part of the reason why I adore Daniel Pinkwater. He unapologetically inhabits these bizarre, secret, magical worlds. Though it's ostensibly only for kids, I personally think every adult -- human, Martian and Venusian -- should read Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars.
The real hero of this story is not Alan Mendelsohn, though the titular character has many admirable qualities, and it would not be inappropriate if one was envious of his confidence and smarts. Our hero, instead, is the self-proclaimed short, portly, bespectacled Leonard Neeble. The Neebles have just moved away from "the old neighborhood," where Leonard had lots of friends who didn't care about his looks, lots of cool places to explore, and a set of wacky grandparents who treated him like a human being. They moved into a nice house in West Kangaroo Park, a sterile suburb where no one walks anywhere or knows their neighbors, where all the kids at his school are tall, rich and WASPy (my interpretation -- guilty!), and where his parents ignore him in favor of a newfound obsession with barbecuing.
Leonard quickly learns that the best way to avoid being bullied is to be as quiet and unassuming as possible. To, essentially, make himself invisible. He never speaks in class, he never talks to any of his classmates, and sure enough, everyone starts to forget he is there.
But then, one day, Alan Mendelsohn and his family move into town. Alan does not fit in either, but rather than hide miserably in plain sight, he goes on the offensive. He plays tricks on the dumb kids at school, acts like a smart-ass in class, and brings up topics that make all the teachers uncomfortable, such as Ben Franklin's sex life. Alan and Leonard quickly become friends, and that's when the trouble really starts. Leonard's parents make him see a child psychologist for his failing grades. The shrink encourages Leonard's burgeoning cigar habit and suggests, in typical gullible adult fashion, that he take some time off school. Meanwhile, Alan gets suspended for whipping the student body into a frenzy by telling everyone he's a Martian.
When the two boys are liberated from the oppressive environment of Bat Masterson Junior High, they quickly find themselves wrapped up in a series of bizarre adventures, most of which they discover by accident. In fact, in the book, one really can only find adventure and magic if one isn't actually looking for it. An open mind, however -- a predilection for the weird and a willingness to accept the bizarre and not to rationalize it away, these are necessary prerequisites. So Alan and Leonard accidentally learn the art of Mind Control, the fruits of which seem silly on the surface, as the best they can do is make people take off their hats and rub their bellies. Together they learn about alternate universes, unscramble secret codes, and chew the fat with famous Venusian Clarence Yojimbo, leader of a gang of biker/folk singers and author of a Japanese-English dictionary that is so much more than it seems.
Ultimately, Alan and Leonard reach the apex of their Mind Control powers and are able to visit an alternate universe -- a lost civilization known as Waka-Waka, which is currently under the thumb of three ridiculous bullies (Manny, Moe and Jack), whom no one in Waka-Waka is willing to stand up to. No one, that is, except for Leonard and Alan. No spoilers here, but let's just say that what seems silly on the surface actually turns out to be the very thing that will save the day.
What's sort of wonderful about this book is that Leonard and Alan's secret world adventures have very little impact on their real lives. Their parents remain hapless and oblivious, the misery of their junior high school experience does not change. In effect, no one in the real world learns much of anything, with the notable exception of our hero Leonard Neeble. Maybe he realizes that there's so much more to the world than what meets the eye, maybe standing up to three intergalactic dictators gives him a fresh perspective, or maybe he just gains the confidence that comes from mastering something difficult. But even though Alan Mendelsohn leaves West Kangaroo Park to return to Mars (or, as he describes it in letters to Leonard, "the Bronx"), Leonard does not return to his former miserable self. He takes over where Alan left off, wreaking mischief, sharing unsavory facts with his uptight teachers, and generally carving out a life for himself in a world that does not take kindly to weirdos.
Pinkwater's prose is stark and minimal, sometimes childish in its simplicity, sometimes profound in its sparseness. Overall, it's not the individual words that shine but the creativity, humor, and imagination coupled with a real insight into what it feels like to be a pre-teen misfit.
The son of Polish Jewish immigrants, Daniel Pinkwater grew up in Chicago, and once said of our fair city: "I regarded Chicago, and that first large apartment, as home. I used to dream of living there, and frequently imagine it as the setting for works of fiction I write." He has written about a million books, one short-lived comic strip, and is frequently heard commentating on NPR. Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars is most easily found in a collection of five of his novels called 5 Novels. For some true stories about growing up in Chicago in the 1950s, be sure to check out his collection of short essays, Fish Whistle.
Book cover image courtesy of 30 Minute Martha, photo courtesy of pinkwater.com