Reading Daniel Pinkwater's novels as a kid changed my life for the better, and I've never looked back, so this beautifully written profile by Josh Nathan-Kazis was a pure delight to read, from Pinkwater's experiences as a cult member to the time that Terry Gilliam blamed him for killing Harvey Kurtzman's Help! magazine, putting R. Crumb out of a job.
I've met Pinkwater and read everything I could find about him, but there was lots of material in this profile I hadn't known -- like the fact that his father was an actual Polish gangster; the fact that the recurring Uncle Boris character was actually based on Pinkwater's real-life uncle Berel; and the fact that his first name, "Daniel," was actually given to him late in life by the leader of a cult that Pinkwater joined, even though he knew it was a con ("The quality of the rip-off was so minor you could ignore it").
Nathan-Kazis nails the Pinkwater formula: "Smart, mildly misfit, possibly fat boy with lamebrain parents teams up with an unattached older male relative, meets a nutty fraudster-type, eats lots of great-sounding junk food, goes on an adventure. Locations recur, too: Chicago, Hoboken, Rochester and the invented Hogboro and Baconburg. The name MacTavish turns up a lot, as does the name Ken, as do fat people and chickens." This leads, in turn, to the best-ever characterization of Pinkwater's works: Pynchon for kids.
Nathan-Kazis also recommends Pinkwater's amazing podcast, which features Pinkwater reading his own work in that amazing voice of his ("he has the greatest radio voice you’ve ever heard, Carl Kasell included").
When Pinkwater was a young man, his father brought him to Warsaw on an emergency visit to smuggle cash to a close relative. They flew to Prague, and then on to Warsaw. “We get off the airplane and he speaks to the first Pole he sees, and I see on the Pole’s face the same expression I would see when he spoke English to people,” Pinkwater said. The Polish-speaker seemed to understand what Philip was saying, but he looked like he wasn’t sure exactly what language he was saying it in. Pinkwater realized that, even back in Poland, his father was forever a foreigner.
Pinkwater, too, felt like a sort of foreigner. Oddness came naturally to him, and he cultivated his eccentricity. Once, in high school, he played hooky for a month straight with a friend just to play chess. (“I got scared and went back. He got a job parking cars, and I think he’s still there.”)
One night at his house in Long Island, Pinkwater was lying in bed with his wife when she turned to him and told him she had bought the horses. “What horses?” Daniel asked. “The mother and foal,” Jill said. “What are you talking about?” Daniel asked. “We discussed this,” Jill said. “When did we discuss this?” “The other night.” “Where were we when we were discussing this?” “Here in bed.” “Did I say anything?” “Yeah, you said it would be fine.”
They needed a place to put the horses, so the Pinkwaters moved to the Hudson Valley, where they bought a farm. One day, while settling into his new town, Daniel was visiting with a car repair guy, who happened to be Jewish. “I get along extremely well with my Christian customers and neighbors,” the car guy said. “But I’ll drive an hour out my way to go to a Jewish shop, because why should I give my money to these shit heads?”
Pinkwater knew that the mechanic was trying to bond. Pinkwater wasn’t into it. “You know what, I don’t buy that, either,” he said. “I’m outside of that, too. It’s my pleasure to be outside. I’m not a joiner.” He paused. “Even though I was in a cult.”
How Daniel Pinkwater Became My Own Personal Guru [Josh Nathan-Kazis/Forward]
(Image: Peter Seward)