Thursday, November 15, 2007

Paul is dead

It's creeping crud season--I slept away most of my vacation day Monday, and succumbed to more of the same on Tuesday. In between naps in front of daytime television with one cat or the other snoring away somewhere upon my person, I indulged myself by rereading one of my favorite books from adolescence: Paul Zindel's Pardon Me, You're Stepping On My Eyeball!

Oh, man, how I loved that book. I was talking about it with Mike today, just the general experience ("The Pigman," he said promptly when I mentioned Zindel, surprising me), and he mentioned what a strange, sweet pleasure it is, to go back to a children's or YA title--when, anymore, do you get to read a whole book in a day? And I savored it, the cracked and yellowing paperback I've probably had for 25 years, with its dreadful cover blurb: "The zany, supercharged novel of 'Marsh' Mellow & Edna Shinglebox--two unforgettable teenage outcasts who tackle life...and love for the first time!"

That's...not it, exactly. This book is way, way darker than that, although there are sidesplitting moments. Marsh and Edna are depressed and screwed up and misunderstood, sure, and I identified with them myself as a kid...but reading it now, I find them even sadder than I remembered. Their mothers...ohhh, their mothers. Marsh's mom is an abusive drunk (though she's coping with her own tragedy, badly); Edna's mom is a status-obsessed piece of work of an entirely different order altogether. I wonder, now, if this is a requirement of all lit for young people: parents who JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU, blown out into horrific that we can all identify with the kids in the story, and then retreat to our own lives at least a little comforted.

There are images and turns of phrase in this book that I've carried around for a lifetime, some that I'd long since misplaced the origin of. The palm-reading gypsy's sign, a huge hand looking "like it belonged to a giant who was buried deep into the earth." How, at the terrible party scene, the teenage commune leader exhorts the kids ("brothers and sisters!") to touch one another, and their hands "flying out like bats in a cave." Raccoon's [spoiler!] demise, which I've never, ever forgotten. (Also, I took from this book the following lesson: throw a drinking party while your parents are out of town = burn the goddamn house to the ground. I never quite got over that one, either.) The entire last chapter at Arlington, which I know practically word-for-word and still it tears my heart out, in the best possible way. "...and then, at last, there were the stars set in their proper place." Love.

I read all Zindel's books, or at least all that I could get my hands on, in the early 80s. I can see them, the hardbacks in that last row of the YA section in the Greenlake branch library: at the time, just wrapping around the northwest corner of the north reading room. Eyeball was my favorite, enough so that I acquired my own copy I don't remember where. I was pinched by real sorrow, to find that most of them aren't readily available via Amazon. The Pigman is a perennial, evidently, but somehow it didn't make the same impression. It pains me, to think that probably no one else is clinging to Marsh and Edna like a lifeline, now.

Zindel's son created a website for his father, who died in 2003. I liked this part of his self-bio: "After college, I worked for Allied Chemical as a technical writer. [Yes, emphasis mine.] After six dreadful months of that, I left..." To become a high-school science teacher, no less. He'd earned a chemistry degree, although you get a sense of the alternate life he was developing when you learn that he was mentored by Edward Albee. It intrigues me, that he taught for years, but so ably skewers school and teachers in this book and, if memory serves, the others.

I don't know. It's late and I'm mostly lost in pleasant, if rueful, nostalgia. There was never enough time in the library, when I was a kid: whatever adult I'd cajoled into driving me seemed always to be hustling me out, me burdened with two sagging, ripping grocery bags that I'd inevitably polish off well before the three-week due date. I remember the books piled on the yellow plastic table I used as a nightstand--and the hideous ceramic-Cupid lamp I read by. (Inherited, not chosen, that. Ugh.) I remember the books, which oddly enough seemed all to focus on snarky, troubled, independent kids living in or near New York City. Judy Blume is inescapable (and my book club's recent flirtation with her is a whole 'nother story). But whatever happened to Constance C. Greene, with the Al books? Paula Danziger? Betty Miles? Does Ellen Conford write any more? Oh, those books I imitated shamelessly, and howled over, and wept over, summer nights up too late by the light of that ugly-ass cherub lamp.

Well, I can imagine myself up on Alibris all damn night...though I don't have the capacity for wakefulness that I did at 12. More's the pity.


Brooke said...

Is Marsh's mom the one they called "Schizo Suzy"? I remember asking my stepdad what "schizo" meant and then telling him what the character called, and he laughed his ass off.

Or was that some other author?

Kim said...

Yes, yes! Schizo Suzy and Paranoid Pete! ...upon reflection, I don't suppose I knew what it meant either, on first reading. And no doubt I would have pronounced it "shy-zoh," if asked.

So glad *someone* else remembers this book, girl. I knew we were friends for a reason!