At this point, your guess is as good as mine.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Grad School Reviews: Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key

Thus begins the highly informal, highly suspect reviewing of books I'm asked to read as part of my grad program at Hamline University. Shall we?

Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key
By Jack Gantos
Buy it on Amazon

When I was in undergrad, I had a series of playwriting classes with the great Arthur Athanason I'll never forget. As I'm moving on in my own writing career, it really strikes me not just how much I remember from those lectures but how many of the other works written by my peers have continued to rattle around in my brain.

At one point in the first year, an Acting grad student named Jay turned in a scene where a mother is told by her elementary school son's counselor person (do they even have counselor people in elementary schools?) that her darling little boy is ADHD or some such condition. Mr. Counselor Man says that the tests are conclusive and that the kid needs to be put on behavioral meds right away...much to mom's shock. She asks all sorts of expository T-Ball questions, allowing him to give a rote listing of basic clinical excuses for medicating kids. She comes off as totally shocked for about three pages.

Then suddenly, mom not only finds her confidence but also a shit ton of specialized knowledge. The previously timid and stupefied lady turns herself into an AP news feed about the dangers of medicating kids and the oh-so "Dateline NBC" premise that plenty of children with totally normal little kid daydreaming tendencies are put on medications by school employees under the thumb of Big Pharmaceuticals. This happens every day in America apparently. But not to her son! With decisive finality, she storms out having stunned Mr. Counselor into silence.

Ultimately, the scene wasn't a piece of drama. It was a didactic. Jay was anti-meds for most kids and (as he explained to us after the reading) anti-meds for a specific kid who they'd tried to drug up who was a part of his family. But Jay knew better. This kid was an amazing dreamer/artist/snowflake and should never be pressed under the thumb of Adderall.

Jack Gantos' Joey Pigza Swallowed The Key strikes me as a kind of counter-argument to that scene. I mean, to be fair, Gantos is a much more polished and entertaining writer whose point of view I agree with much more than Jay's declarations, and the novel has plenty of bits and bobs which are funny or dramatic or emotive and which I'm sure would strike a number of young readers as engaging. But still, the novel is ultimately a mission statement arguing for an understanding of the point of view and predicament of children who need the help of psychotropic medicine more so than a story about a character who attempts to take control of his world and life. So it lost me in the end.

The book revolves around the titular Joey – a nine or ten-ish spazoid who was for many years left in the care of his emotionally if not always physically abusive grandmother for many years. Eventually, Joey's former boozehound mother comes back into his life and attempts to take control of getting him on a solid path as he continually wigs out, acts out and shouts out in school. Joey is a teacher's worst nightmare type – a kid who not only can't force himself from paying no attention to class but who also can't stop himself from constantly drawing attention to his antics. From field trips where he steals pies and falls out of barn lofts to classroom shenanigans like swallowing his house key only to regurgitate it, he's a bit of a loose cannon.

But despite the constant buzzing in his brain drawing his attention anywhere but where it's supposed to be, Joey knows in his heart of hearts that he's a good kid. And he displays an uncanny amount of understanding for his plight and his teacher's frustration and his mother's struggles to keep him together. In fact, he seems to be a SUPER observant and knowledgeable narrator for someone who's constantly reinforcing for the reader the idea that he's always checking out on reality to dive into any bright and shiny distraction that presents itself. And that was my first real problem with the story.

Over the first chapters of the book where Joey and his mom are introduced amongst a thread where the boy has a trial run part-time in an in-school special ed program, the feeling I couldn't shake was one of...I guess you'd say "unrealness"? While I know that a certain suspension of disbelief has to be applied to a narrator with mental illness, I never quite connected with the Joey I knew I was supposed to be seeing in the story and the one who seemed very aware of all the bits and pieces of social work case study notes that were floating around him. It made for a lack of authenticity even in scenes where there was cute, believable business between him and his mom or the school nurse or whoever.

This all came to a head at the book's turning point: a scene where Joey – attempting to do his best by cutting up some "save the world" bumper stickers with teacher's scissors – trips and accidentally cuts the tip of the nose off a little girl in class. The scene came suddenly with it being one of the few examples of where Joey's distraction really gave us no details on how the hell he actually could cut a girl's nose off. (And I'm sure that's possible, but what I'm saying is that it felt very improbably here as the writing suddenly shifted to "and then there was blood everywhere...oh gosh!").

From there, we dive straight into a second half where Joey gets six weeks at a special ed center in town. He's taken through a series of tests to determine what the right medicine is for him along with a few threads about him being afraid of the truly handicapped kids but then ending up liking them because he just sort of realizes they're normal too (*snore*). The book's most compelling but ultimately fruitless thread is introduced here as well: the underlying conflicts between Joey and his mother over how complicit she is in his problems and how she'd rather avoid big issues like where the hell his dad is. There's honestly some compelling character work and well-written back and forth in these scenes, but they're too little too late. For one, the real conflict there is passed off to be dealt with in a second book (which I'm ACTUALLY supposed to be reading for the program but I can't read a book two without a book one first done). But more importantly for two, the whole drama of the situation is nuked by the fact that Joey's happy end as a well-adjusted good kid comes thanks to a nice patch of mood alterers applied by a kindly doctor.

Seriously, Joey thinks smartly on his plight a lot and butts up against potential conflicts here and there, but in the end, the agent of change for his life is almost literally "a pill you take that makes your problems go away." There's nothing I hate more than a character who makes no active choices, and Joey doesn't have a one by books end. In fact, here's a key passage from one of the last chapters that shocked me in some ways:

"I just stood there thinking that I was finally going down the right path to being better. That getting better was really happening to me. That it was my turn for everyone to help..." - pgs. 142 - 143

Can you believe that?!?! The main character of the book "just stood there" while the thing he really wanted "was happening to him" and that through no action of his own people would come to help him. That fails the core dramatic need of a hero in almost every conceivable way.

So yeah. Like I said of Jay's scene, this was a didactic. A mission statement story. A term paper novel.

Good that there's a book out there to make kids with attention and emotional problems feel like their not sub-normal I guess, but Joey Pigza is ultimately no one I'm looking forward to reading about again. Fingers crossed book two shapes up.

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