Daniel Pinkwater By Bernard Greenwald
I first encountered Daniel Pinkwater in person a couple of years ago when he and his wife Jill were lunching at the next table. I was taking some noontime nourishment with my young son Benjamin and my photographic Boswell, Doug Baz, who is not young. We were in one of Red Hook’s literary meccas, the Golden Wok. I recognized Daniel by his voice, so often heard on Public Radio when he reviews children’s books with Scott Simon, or in technical discussions with the Car Guys, or indeed when he had his own wonderful program. I coupled the voice with the knowledge that Daniel is physically a man of grand proportions.
pinkwaterBen and I had already been admirers of Daniel’s, having read several of his books together with great pleasure. Doug is quite verbal, and giving into his compulsion to strike up a conversation with anyone within earshot, whether he knows the person or not, he soon engaged Daniel and Jill in familiar chatter, while continuing to wield his chopsticks like a Mandarin. Ben and I, being naturally more discreet, were, however, grateful for Doug’s general lack of boundaries on this occasion, and soon, to our delight, we too were caught up in the conversation. Daniel is a Bard alumnus, and since Ben is the son of a Bard professor, and Doug has taught there as well, we had much in common.
When Daniel received the prestigious Bard Medal last spring, I realized it would be a good time to meet with him again. Without the voluble Douglas in tow, I knew I could steer the conversation into territory less jejune. I was able to reserve an intimate table at the Wok, which afforded us a view of the boulevardiers on Route 9, but also provided the privacy and quiet necessary for leisurely dining and (this time) more serious conversation.
Luckily Daniel is not the sort of coy person who needs to be exhorted to talk about himself and my first question was enough to evoke a detailed response, delivered with the brilliance, wit and humor of a skilled raconteur, but revealing the pathos of a difficult and unhappy early life. He was describing a childhood that must have been very hard, yet he did so without a hint of bitterness, anger or self pity. I find the same sweetness of nature reflected in his books. He makes jokes all the time, but without the sting or sharp edge of hostility often found in humor. This is a magnanimous person.
Many of Daniel’s stories are based on a young boy who lives with an eccentric family whose mores and customs inexplicably border on the bizarre. He goes forth in search of someone who will share his sensibilities or who will act as his guide, a bridge between this family and the real world. Eventually he finds himself in a stratum of existence that outstrips the world as we know it. Throughout, the hero is good-natured and resilient, and no matter what befalls him he remains amiable and curious
I told Daniel that this sounded like a first generation American child whose family had recently emigrated from Europe and which found its transplanted values and customs no longer relevant in their new surroundings. While the father and mother do their best to become “average” Americans, their disguise constantly reveals cracks embarrassing to the child. In fact, Daniel’s father, Phillip, came to the United States in the 20s from Warsaw, where he had been a forger. According to Daniel, his father was sphinx-like in his refusal to offer details about his life or work there. Whatever he had done, a group of Jewish elders of the community put him forcibly on a train, with a ticket for passage to the United States, paid by them, in his pocket, and he was told not to return. Daniel mimics his father’s Polish-Jewish accent when he quotes him, and you can hear this on Daniel’s audiotapes.
Phillip Pinkwater was met at the boat in Manhattan by two expatriate Polish mobsters, each of whom placed the barrel of a large gun against one of his temples and strongly suggested he not tarry in the Big Apple, but that he continue west. That’s how the Pinkwaters ended up in Chicago, among other landsmen and mishpucha. And perhaps this is why the elder Pinkwater eschewed carrying a gun, with some self-righteous pride: “the only one of eight brothers,” he said, “who did not do so.” Of course, according to Daniel, his dad was so mean and tough he did not need to carry a gun.
One day, rummaging in the old man’s drawers, Daniel discovered two blackjacks, one covered in brown leather, the other in black. When he asked his mother why they were there, she said one went with the black suit and the other with the brown.
Every Saturday morning Phillip would take Daniel to the local barber shop frequented by Phillip’s cronies–a ritual. Daniel grew up thinking that normal attire for a grown man was a wide-lapeled, double-breasted suit, a gaudy, handpainted silk necktie, a flashy shirt with large bejeweled cufflinks, a silk pocket handkerchief, suspenders, garters, black-and-white wing tips, a shiny manicure, a large pinky ring and (except for his father), a shoulder holster. When he once asked his father why all the men wore guns, Phillip said, “I dunno, they must be detectives.”
However Phillip and his brother Uncle Boris were not uncreative men. They claimed to be the first private individuals in the United States to own their own movie camera–certainly the first Jews–and they regularly made films together for their own amusement. One, called “Feets,” was apparently inspired by the camera salesman who had reminded the brothers not to forget to include the “feets” of people they were filming. It showed only various people’s feet and completely lacked plot or dialogue. It was repeatedly screened at family get-togethers where the two auteurs urged the guests to “guess whose feets those are.” Another, called “Skies, 1938,” also lacked plot or dialogue, consisting entirely of views of the sky shot–they claimed, in every state of the union. Of course, all this came decades before Andy Warhol or Peter Hutton ever picked up a movie camera.
While Daniel never actually saw his father commit an act of violence he knew what he was capable of–“he made things happen.” Daniel was “profoundly afraid of him–you’d be out of your mind not to be afraid.” Daniel was the youngest. He had several older half-siblings, some of whom had been relegated to the Marks-Nathan Jewish Children’s Home when their parents were too preoccupied to watch over them. It was there that his sister received the first warm attention in her life. Later she was the one who essentially raised Daniel, and she passed on to him this nurturing, reading to him every night for many years.
Today, Daniel takes great pleasure in the popularity of his books. He says that kids are much more careful readers than adults. “If a kid really likes a book he might read it seventeen or twenty times.” Sometimes he meets kids who are doubtful that he is the “real” Daniel Pinkwater and they quiz him on his books, which they know better than he does: “What’s on page 142 of the Education of Robert Rifkin?” He likes it that they imitate the way he writes. And there is always his sweetness, his gentleness. There is no violence in his books–“the perils for children are so considerable I don’t want to add to them in my stories.” He hopes the books will grant kids permission to “be smart when they are surrounded by yahoos, without hating them.”
By this time the moo shu pork had been decimated and the crispy roast duck was in tatters. We had been talking and laughing for a long time–we had to say goodbye. I had heard some funny stuff and some sad stuff, but I was still smiling when I crossed Rt. 9 to my car.
Uncle Boris in the Yukon and Other Shaggy Dog Stories, Daniel Pinkwater’s most recent book, was originally published by Simon and Shuster and is scheduled for paperback publication in 2003. The illustration above, drawn by Jill Pinkwater and taken from its dust jacket, shows a man with features remarkably similar to the author.