I missed Nifkin the first time around (it was initially published in 1998), but I'm pleased to have corrected that oversight, especially since the latest edition, from Houghton Mifflin's Graphia imprint, comes with a fabulous Shag-illustrated cover. Nifkin is one of Pinkwater's more adult books (in that it contains a fair bit of cursing and some mildly sexual material), and but it's squarely in the tradition of his YA geek-finds-himself books like Alan Mendelsohn, The Boy From Mars.
Here's the setup: it's the mid-fifties and Robert Nifkin has just moved from suburban California to Chicago with his Eastern European immigrant parents (his father is a notorious Polish gangster who was thrown out of Warsaw by his fellow Jews, as the Gentiles were too scared to talk to him). He is sent to Riverview High, a kind of prison camp for geeky kids, and there he rests for the first half of the book, enduring a season in Hell.
First, there are his teachers: Ms Kukla (homeroom), is a screamer who compulsively warns her students about sneaky commie recruiters who might also pass them pornography (she also calls Nifkin -- a fat, nebbishy kid in bad clothes that his father insists upon -- a "fairy" upon meeting him; Coach Spline is such a bastard that Nifkin opts for ROTC to get out of gym, where he encounters Sergeant Gunter, a crypto-communist who joined up after fighting fascists in Spain; Mr Moody is a history teacher who has perfected the Riverview pegagogic technique (write stuff on the board and grade students at the end of the semester by how legibly they've copied it into their notebooks); and Mrs MacAllister, an anti-Semite who uses English classes to warn them about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Nifkin's home-life isn't much better. His parents left all their furnishings behind in Chicago and opted for fashion-magazine perfect decor, surmounted by a lamp his father made out of driftwood and fiberglass balls ("It's was like Halloween every night of the year...it would have unnerved Dracula"), and his father won't eat anything with seasoning, which drives Nifkin to eat at the nearby Mel's, where Melburgers are served ("A triple is three fatburger patties on a bun...a double triple is two of them... Only polar bears and Arctic wolves can digest them"). His folks heap him with abuse ("So, bum. How is by you deh education?") and accuse him of falling in with commies.
But Mel's is the turning point for Nifkin, because it's there that he meets the bohemians, especially Kenny Papescu, an alternative school kid who cuts classes in order to deliver his father's art forgeries. Papescu recruits Nifkin, and soon he's a semi-professional dropout who uses his forged university ID to sneak into lectures in between haunting the movie palaces and lugging around gigantic art forgeries.
It can't last. Nifkin is drummed out of Riverview and convinces his father to send him to The Wheaton School, a free-school frequented by beatniks, idiots, criminals, dropouts, freaks, and misfits. And here the book takes a gigantic step from the weird to the inspiring.
The first half of Robert Nifkin is your everyday Pinkwater: convulsively funny, zany, biting. There's plenty of biting, zany and funny in the second half, too, but what distinguishes it is the slow, delightful realization on Nifkin's part that learning -- especially eclectic, self-directed learning undertaken with your peers and with engaged teachers -- is incredibly fun.
This section sings. It vividly recalls my own alternative school history, which consisted of a fairly long period of horsing around and goofing off, followed by an equally long period of dedicated, intense, serious study inspired by all the exciting things I learned by horsing around.
It's because of this that Robert Nifkin rings so true for me. This really is a magnificent coming-of-age story, and what's more, it's practically a manual for how to have (and oversee) a lifelong love-affair with learning, with doing, and with synthesizing. It's a story that affirms something I firmly believe in: intellectual curiosity is the most important force in the universe.
Robert Nifkin never loses Pinkwater's trademark breezy, madcap tone, but in this regard, it is as serious and awe-inspiring as an earthquake. Here is a book to inspire a whole generation of extremely happy mutants.