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Zindel’s informal narrative style and candid approach to subjects of interest to young people made him one of the most popular writers of contemporary young adult literature. Though also a Pulitzer-prize winning dramatist for his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1964), he was most acclaimed for his novels The Pigman (1968) and My Darling, My Hamburger (1969), as well as for his numerous other young adult novels.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Financial Hardship Leads to Numerous Moves
Zindel was born on Staten Island, New York, in 1936. His father left the family early in the marriage, leaving his wife to raise Zindel and his sister on her own without much money. Their mother tried numerous schemes to support the family. The family lived through world war II (1940-1945), during which the Allied forces defeated the Axis powers, including Hitler and the Nazis. The general economic boom following the war did not help the Zindel family, as Zindel’s mother variously served as a private duty nurse, a hot dog vendor, a real estate salesman, and even as a dog breeder, with none of her jobs bringing in much cash. Almost every six months the family moved, through a series of apartments on Staten Island and finally, into a ramshackle house in Travis, New York. Zindel began writing at an early age, preparing short sketches for high school functions, and continued to write in college, composing two original plays by the time he received his master of science degree from wagner College in Staten Island in 1959. He remained in his hometown for the next ten years, working at a local high school as a chemistry and physics teacher while continuing to write on the side.
Zindel’s first success came in 1964 when his play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds had its premiere at Houston’s Alley Theatre. Marigolds is the story of a young girl, Tillie, who lives with her epileptic sister and her abusive mother, Beatrice. “Marigolds was written when I was twenty-five-years-old,” Zindel has commented:
One morning I awoke and discovered the manuscript next to my typewriter. I suspect it is autobiographical, because whenever I see a production of it I laugh and cry harder than anyone else in the audience. I laugh because the play always reminds me of still another charmingly frantic scheme of my mother’s to get rich quick.
Though similarities exist between Beatrice and his own mother, Zindel has noted his mother’s compassion and dedication to her family. The play went on to be produced on Broadway in 1970 and to win the 1971 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Realistic Adolescent Novels Make Waves
Zindel’s success continued when, in 1966, Charlotte Zolotow, an editor for Harper & Row, saw a television production of Marigolds produced by National Educational Television. Moved by his understanding depiction of Tillie, Zolotow contacted Zindel and convinced him to write a work for young adults, which became his first novel. The Pigman was instrumental in establishing the realistic teenage novel as a distinct genre. The Pigman garnered the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for fiction and was selected as one of School Library Journals most influential books of the twentieth century. In 1969, Zindel quit his teaching position to write dramas and young adult novels full time. In his second novel, My Darling, My Hamburger, he tells the story of a high school girl with abusive parents who, when she discovers she is pregnant, turns to an illegal abortionist.
The 1960s and 1970s produced a counterculture movement in the United States in which the younger generation questioned the standard traditions of family, gender roles, and authority. Zindel’s work comes out of this movement in its refusal to condescend toward teenagers because of their youth. But, because Zindel’s young adult novels have recurring themes of abusive adults and desperate teenagers, he has met with criticism. He believes, however, that he is confronting the reality of teenage life.
Teenagers have to rebel. It’s part of the growing process. In effect, I try to show them they aren’t alone in condemning parents and teachers as enemies or ciphers. I believe I must convince my readers that I am on their side; I know it’s a continuing battle to get through the years between twelve and twenty—an abrasive time. And so I write always from their own point of view.
Zindel continued to write prolifically during the 1980s and 1990s, writing a book nearly every year. He also wrote the screenplay for the film Runaway Train (1985), starring John Voigt. Between 2001 and 2003, Zindel published no less than fourteen books. He died of cancer on March 27, 2003, while living in New York.
Works in Literary Context
Realism in Teenage Novels
Zindel is a best-selling author of young adult works who has pioneered the genre’s break with romanticism toward a more realistic mode. Zindel’s characters are often desperately unhappy. His stories do not have tidy endings or shallow platitudes about a perfect world. Quite the contrary, as Zindel deals honestly with loneliness, eccentricity, escapism, sexual tension, and drug and alcohol abuse. Many of Zindel’s stories are concerned with teenagers who are alienated from their parents and teachers, young people who struggle to find meaning and self-worth in a society that batters them. In Elementary English, Beverly A. Haley and Kenneth L. Donelson note that Zindel
looks at the world through the eyes of adolescents, many kinds of adolescents, all trying to find some meaning in a world apparently gone mad, all concerned with man’s cruelty and ”matters of consequence.” By selecting an adolescent point of view, Zindel forces the reader to look at the world as if he were awakening to it for the first time, a kind of rebirth.
Zindel’s message is not hopelessly grim, however. His young heroes and heroines discover their worth, connect with one another, and learn important lessons about life—sometimes the hard way. In facing ugly reality, they see beyond the ugliness to something better, and they strive for that better vision.
Zindel examines adolescents’ relationships with adults through a variety of realistic characters. Michael J. Meyer points out in Children’s Literature Association Quarterly that ”Zindel’s sympathetic portraits of abused male adolescents are especially valuable because he offers not only a picture of why such abuse occurs but also provides hope that the situation can be resolved positively.” For example, in The Amazing and Death-Defying Diary of Eugene Dingman (1987), Zindel’s protagonist is more or less ignored by his dysfunctional parents. But, during his summer as a waiter at an Adirondack resort, he finds surrogate mentors to learn from. In David and Della (1993), David Maholy’s parents fax him messages from throughout the world but have a difficult time conversing with him in person. However, David still manages to find ways of expressing his creativity and affirming the value of life.
Works in Critical Context
Ever since the appearance of his first two books, Zindel’s novels have been the objects of a extensive controversy and evaluation. On the one hand, they have been described as humorous and honest, and on the other hand, they have been condemned as ”hack work” and slick ”con jobs.”
Zindel’s first novel has been the subject of extensive critical and largely favorable discussion. For critic Loretta Clarke, in an article in College English, ”As a swift moving narrative, the story works well. Its lack of complexity fits the statement of intent made by the narrators in the opening oath ‘to record the facts, and only the facts.”’ James T. Henke observed a depth in the novel that is unusual for young adult fiction. He described it as
rich in provocatively suggestive metaphor and symbol. For instance, Mr. Pignati’s beloved zoo is a symbol of the plight of modern man in our impersonal society. Each of us, so Zindel says, lives in his own cage of indifference, boredom, or self-absorption. As do the creatures in the zoo, we may live in close proximity, but we do not live together. At the zoo, Mr. Pignati delights in tossing peanuts to Bobo the gorilla, and John delights in teasing Bobo by attempting to ”speak” like an ape. Both acts, one pathetic, the other comic, are symbolic of modern man’s need to communicate with someone, something, anything.
Critic Diane Farrell offers a similar view about the novel’s uncompromising approach to its subject matter: ”Few books that have been written for young people are as cruelly truthful about the human condition. Fewer still accord the elderly such serious consideration or perceive that what we term senility may be a symbolic return to youthful honesty and idealism.”
Critic David Rees was of the opinion that The Pigman is Zindel’s finest book. He went on to say:
It is a somber and chastening story that gets better and better as it goes on, and despite the linguistic irritations, it deserves its high reputation and wide readership. More than any other of his novels, it has coherent shape and direction, and its climax is particularly good: a chilling, sobering, morality-tale conclusion. It also has several finely-wrought verbal felicities. . . . Lorraine and John are credible realistic characters, telling us more, strangely, about each other in their first-person narrations than about themselves. Effective, too, is the emphasis laid by the author on the fact that it is a combination of their own selfishness and Mr. Pignati’s that leads to the old man’s death—not some vague malevolent adult world outside that is responsible.
Lavinia Russ was also enthusiastic about the novel. She praised Zindel as being ”one of the brightest stars in the children’s book sky. When Paul Zindel’s first book, The Pigman appeared, it was so astonishingly good it made your reviewer feel like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.”
My Darling, My Hamburger
My Darling, My Hamburger was generally not as well received as Zindel’s first novel. Indeed, some of the criticism directed at it was quite harsh. Josh Greenfeld criticized Zindel for a lack of honesty:
How do you reach the young, the teenagers? In books, as in life, I do not know. But neither, I think, does Mr. Zindel. For I do know that fiction must offer truth in the guise of illusion, not illusion instead of the truth. And the one thing our Now children can sense most assuredly, as they peer across that well-known gap at their generators, is the scent of adult con.
Writing in 1980, over a decade after the publication of the book, David Rees offered a mixed assessment:
The main theme of the book—Liz’s abortion—is dealt with fairly well; the whole business comes over, as it should, as an ugly, emotionally messy, squalid experience. But the dice are far too heavily loaded against Liz. Quirks of fate play a large role in what happens, and her encounters with the unbelievably nasty Rod Gittens seem a little too much when added to the chain of circumstantial events that leads to her and Sean Collins making love without any contraceptive precautions. Also, the book seems, ten years later, rather unmodern. The horror of the back-street abortion, even if still with us, is not now necessarily the outcome of an unwanted pregnancy, and the whole atmosphere of the teenage romance as portrayed here has a passe feeling to it with its formal dates and dances. It’s as if the author felt as unrelaxed as his characters. Maybe the trouble is that the book is too didactic, and that not enough space is devoted to developing what goes on inside the characters: one feels curiously uninvolved with them, unlike, say, in The Pigman.
- Forman, Jack Jacob. Presenting Paul Zindel. Boston: Twayne, 1988.
- Zindel, Paul. The Pigman and Me. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
- Farrell, Diane. Review of The Pigman. Horn Book (Feb. 1969).
- Haley, Beverly A., and Kenneth L. Donelson. ”Pigs and Hamburgers, Cadavers and Gamma Rays: Paul Zindel’s Adolescents.” Elementary English (Oct. 1974): 941-945.
- Janeczko, Paul. ”An Interview with Paul Zindel.” English Journal (1977): 20-21.
- Meyer, Michael L. Review. Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (1992): 11.
- Maholy, David. Review. Washington Post Book World (May 8, 1994): 20.
- Russ, Lavinia. Review. Publishers Weekly (Apr 13, 1970).
- Scales, Pat. ”The Pigman and He: Paul Zindel’s Stories are Full of Fear, Self-Loathing, and Unconditional Friendship. No ‘Random House, Inc. Paul Zindel. Retrieved December 8, 2008, from http://www.randomhouse.com/ author/results.pperl?authorid=34133.
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