Pinkwater's Bushman Lives: absurdist misfit story is an insightful treatise on art

Daniel Pinkwater's Bushman Lives is another of Pinkwater's marvellous novels for young adults (and adults!) in which a misfit narrator embraces his inner weirdo and finds odd joy. Harold Knishke is a young man in late 1950s Chicago who finds himself with a lot of spare time thanks to weird political patronage at his high-school, which results in him serving as a corrupt hall monitor who can excuse himself from school grounds on his own recognizance. One day, he quits flute lessons, sells his flute to his relieved instructor, and uses the money to take up life-drawing classes at a beatnik art school across the street from a mysterious whitewashed house whose paint is constantly being replenished by mysterious, hissing humanoids all dressed in white wrapping.

Woven into this narrative is the story of Geets Hildebrand, Harold's best friend, who runs away to join the Navy. Geets and Harold share an obsession with Bushman, the Lincoln Park Zoo's storied gorilla, a tragic and dignified figure. Geets is discharged from the Navy and discovers a secret society of rural misfits in a state park who tell him about a hidden castle on a hidden island in the middle of a lake.

Harold's life is one odd thing after another. He meets a young woman training to be a wise-woman who hips him to Willem de Kooning and then gets him a mentor who is obsessed with mural-painting and baking potatoes. He is inducted into an artist's workshop in a mysterious transdimensional building. He learns that there is a folk song about him, but can't make out the lyrics.

But most of all, Harold learns about art -- about the techniques of visual art, about the weird phonies that haunt the art world, but most importantly (and movingly) about the drive to make art and the thing that art does for its audiences.

Daniel Pinkwater and his wife Jill are both visual artists, and Bushman Lives is, more than anything, a book about art, and a very good one. I'd read Pinkwater all day long even if his absurdist fairy tales were nothing more than odd little stories, but as Bushman Lives (and his other works) proves, Pinkwater's absurdism is a delivery system for profound and important insight that stay with you for years and decades.

Bushman Lives was serialized online prior to publication, and really rewards your attention.

Bushman Lives



  1. Not a comment on Pinkwater but a comment on the term “Young Adult” I see on here all the time. By the age of 13 I had already read (and understood and enjoyed) Animal Farm, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost, the bible, plus heaps of ‘adult’ genre fiction and I don’t think of myself as being particularly exceptional. To me the label ‘young adult’ seems patronising to young people and alienating to older people, and is therefore a marketing failure. What exactly is a ‘young adult’?

    OK, maybe not exactly ‘enjoyed’ Paradise Lost or the bible but you get my point

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