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The Gospel According to Pinkwater 

click to enlarge Daniel Pinkwater - JENNIFER MAY
  • Jennifer May
  • Daniel Pinkwater

  Daniel Pinkwater has written a hundred books, give or take. The man who coined the monikers Clarence Yojimbo, Lance Hergeschleimer, and Flipping Hades Terwilliger seems undecided about his own name, sometimes billing himself as D. Manus Pinkwater. Here is a tasting of bios from some of his book jackets:

“D. Manus Pinkwater was born in Tennessee. He went to school, traveled all over the world, and wound up in Hoboken, New Jersey.”—Lizard Music, 1976

“Daniel Pinkwater was completely unknown until the early 1940s. Then he was born. Even then he continued to be known to a very few. In recent years, however, he has become so well-known that to add further facts would be to gild the lily. Suffice it to say that he is never mistaken for anyone else.”—The Snarkout Boys & the Baconburg Horror, 1984

“Daniel Pinkwater is crazy about writing, and has been trying to learn how to do it for 50 years. He thinks The Neddiad is his best book so far—but he always says that.”—The Neddiad, 2007

All of the above may be true. Or not. Facts tend to soften and morph in the wildly imaginative atmosphere of Pinkwater’s universe.

Daniel and Jill Pinkwater live in a 19th-century farmhouse in Hyde Park, hidden from the road by rambling hedges. Jill—redheaded, salty, and vigorous—opens the door of a black-and-white-tiled kitchen. A calico cat blinks on a rug in one corner, next to a wall lined with cookbooks and onions. There’s a wooden Dutch door at the foot of the stairs, against which two dogs hurl themselves, barking and yodeling.

Daniel Pinkwater’s voice—instantly recognizable to NPR listeners—resonates down the stairwell as he appears, a Hitchcockian silhouette dressed in top-to-toe black with a dusting of pet hair. He lets the dogs free.

Lulu, an elegant Inuit sled dog, bays and sings, wagging her tail. The gruffer bark comes from an aging retriever, Maxine. Jill herds them outside as Daniel strolls to the kitchen table, plants himself in a chair, and cheerfully tells the photographer, “I’m not doing a thing you say, so just snap away.” He takes out a pipe he will light and relight during infrequent gaps in his hour-long discourse.

He’s a great raconteur, shaping stories with consummate timing. When he lands a punchline, he opens his eyes very wide and leans forward, flashing a snaggle-toothed grin. “I give a good interview, don’t I?,” he says at one point.

Pinkwater’s kitchen table is piled high with children’s books, some of the approximately 3,000 he receives yearly from publishers vying for one of his monthly review slots on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.” Jill, also an author and illustrator, culls most of these as library donations, leaving the rest for her husband’s discerning eye. “Fifty percent are a waste of trees,” he asserts, “Which is to say fifty percent of them aren’t.”

Besides books well-adapted to radio, Pinkwater looks for narrative skill. “Many picture books are a showcase for beautiful drawings, but they’re not kid-friendly. There’s no door for a kid to go through.”

The doors into Pinkwater’s own books are many and varied, and kids hurtle through them with glee, romping from picture books like The Big Orange Splot to more complex stories like The Hoboken Chicken Emergency and Borgel.

He’s also written a handful of books for adults: the 1995 novel The Afterlife Diet, which paints the great beyond as a tacky Catskills resort for dead fat people; the dog-training guide Superpuppy, co-authored with Jill and in print for two decades; and several volumes of essays, including Uncle Boris in the Yukon and Other Shaggy Dog Stories. “Memoir” may be the wrong word for a book that features a sled dog who speaks fluent Yiddish, but it spins many tales from Pinkwater’s childhood, including a trip on the Super Chief train from Chicago to Los Angeles with his parents, his mortified half-sister, several cages of parakeets, and a Zenith portable radio.

The Wentworthstein family in The Neddiad makes the same voyage, right down to the parakeets. But where the fictional Neddie’s father is a benevolent shoelace mogul, Uncle Boris’s kinsmen were “Jewish thugs.” Pinkwater writes, “I have a photograph of my father and his brothers in those days. They are manicured and pomaded, holding whangee canes and kidskin gloves, wearing flash neckties, and staring into the camera with the expression of cape buffalo contemplating a tourist.”

Pinkwater told an interviewer for the online magazine Fat?So! (www.fatso.com) that he was raised by his elder half-brother and half-sister, who’d “acquired human values” at an orphanage where their ex-chorus girl mother had parked them for a few years because it was convenient. “My actual biological parents were straight out of the Pleistocene.”

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