Joey the Jittery

h1 September 17th, 2007 by jules

Joey’s back in I Am Not Joey Pigza (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; July 2007; review copy), though Jack Gantos stated previously that the books would stop at the line where trilogies are drawn (read here to find out why Gantos kept writing). I, for one, am happy he didn’t close the book on the intrepid Joey.

I’ve noticed this book is being generally praised, though I’ve heard a few half-hearted (as in still mostly enthusiastic) grumbles here and there (as in, I liked this but . . .). But when I read this from Kirkus Reviews — “This is Gantos at his best, and that’s saying a lot” — I think I literally cheered and said, word. ‘Cause this is exactly how I felt when I finished the last page and closed the book. I’m a big fan of a) Joey and b) Gantos, so let me state that bias up front, if I must. I didn’t think it’d be possible for him to improve upon the Joey saga, but he has — again.

Carter Pigza, Joey’s “no-good squinty-eyed bad dad,” is back. It’s no coincidence that Joey’s mom is suddenly all starry-eyed, as well as the recipient of lavish gifts, and that — soon after — Carter comes knockin’ at their door, much to Joey’s surprise. He’s had a small stroke of luck with playing the lottery, and he’s back to take up his post as father and all-around family man, going so far as to insist that each member of the family changes his or her name. Hence, the book’s title; Joey is now supposed to go by Freddy Heinz (Carter was inspired by a catsup bottle), and his parents are now Charles and Maria (“‘But he’s changed, Joey for real,'” his mother tells him, “with admiration in her voice. ‘Only his name,’ I shot right back. ‘That’s like some kind of stupid pet trick.'”). Carter — rather, Charles Heinz — also moves the entire Pigza clan past the city and into the tiny apartment adjoined to a neglected, old roadside diner, which he plans to renovate into the brand-spankin’-new diner called The Beehive — this after Charles and Maria’s “rewedding,” which, at one point, had me laughing so. very. hard. that I had to put the book down for a minute and compose myself (it was the adult-size bicycle helmet over the bandage around Joey’s head which got to me, especially that Charles had spray-painted it white and Maria had put little heart stickers and cupids around the edge, though the re-wedding vows themselves, said in all sincerity with Maria’s friends chiming in with their “She forgives,” are classic — “I forgive you for all the times you called me a lifelong loser”; “I forgive you for trying to run me over with your motorcycle last year”).

But this is the Pigza clan we’re talking about here, so nothing goes as planned, of course. Carter’s attempts to forge a new identity for himself and his family fail miserably; they even take Joey out of school to help with the diner preparations (“Farm kids get off to help their families with the harvest, so why not you, too?” Charles asks him), though in the end, there’s a new Pigza boy added to the clan (“‘Is it strange having a kid?’ {Joey} asked. ‘Yeah, it’s like marrying someone you never met,'” his mom tells him). In the very, very end, Joey even chimes in with an “I’ll be back.” Oh yes, this must mean another book will follow. Great news all-around.

As with the other books, I had insta-empathy for Joey, always trying to exert some self-control in his life and balance the, uh, liveliness in his head (his “panicky mind”) and the joy it brings him with the need to take his meds already. This title opens with yet another high-powered, exhilirating, daring Joey feat, as he runs through a room in their home, rocketing his body into the closed end of a cardboard box, perched in a second-floor window over their porch roof, and goes flying down to the yard below, whacking his head onto the cement cover over an old plastic wading pool (“I think my brain was overworked with trying to make believe that Carter Pigza had not returned and my mother was not calling him Charles because I forgot to use my better judgment and it wasn’t until I was running halfway across the room that I thought maybe I should be wearing my bike helmet”). And then there’s Joey’s sincere attempts to understand his screwed-up family. Gantos is unwavering — with all these books — in his ability to “mix humor, pain, fear and courage with deceptive ease” (Publishers Weekly in their review of Joey Pigza Loses Control). There are hysterical moments balanced with heartrending moments; the chapter entitled “Granny’s Comet” is a moment of Gantos-genius, as Joey visits his grandmother’s grave, having collected cigarette butts for her tombstone and planning to spray paint it silver (“‘I have to go now,’ I said to her. I leaned forward and gave the stone a kiss. It was as cold as the last time I kissed her cheek. ‘I miss you,’ I said quietly. ‘I’m sorry all that smoking did you in. But I guess we have that in common, too, because now I have to send Joey up in smoke and become that other kid.'”). This is one of several moments in the book that we see Joey’s emerging identity, that — quite simply — he’s growing up, trying to figure out his world and his screwy parents’ place in it (Joey struggling to understand in the very first chapter why it’s up to him to save his father; “I thought the only way to survive this surprise was to give up my meds and just go crazy on my own before they dragged me into their insane world”). Joey even realizes at one point that Carter “always seemed to be two people at once and I wasn’t sure why. But maybe it was like Mom had said, with forgiveness you can breathe easy inside your own skin. Without it, you are always trying to be someone else,” forgiveness being the major theme in this engrossing book, all wrapped up in themes of self-identity (“I guess that once you give up who you are, you can become anybody”).

And really, it’s the fact that Gantos includes in this novel some family moments which are actually lovely, I dare say, (a Christmas morning scene, for instance) that make Carter’s more pathetic moments even more heart-breaking for the reader, as we see Joey’s already-weak hopes for his father get dashed. And all along the way, we get those signature Gantos Joey-metaphors (“{m}y head still roared like Niagara Falls”; “{i}t was like my brain was doing a somersault”; “I felt tired just trying to imagine where that goodness might be in my dad. And I felt that trying to find it was going to be like crawling down one of those old dark coal mines around here that were gated shut because they were dangerous”) that bring Joey to vivid life.

Joey’s character growth in this novel is striking, particularly as he realizes at the novel’s close that Carter will “just be going in circles until he figures out how to be comfortable in his own skin — not some borrowed skin but the skin he was born in.” But then, this is no surprise. In each book, Joey never stagnates, and Gantos’ ability to consistently sustain Joey’s voice throughout the novel (the series, indeed) is remarkable — and entertainingly so. The Joey books are just flat-out great storytelling in every way. And Joey remains forever true with his heart of gold.

Could there be a more sympathetic, lovable character in middle-grade fiction today, I dare say? I mean, as the School Library Journal review of this title points out, Joey is really on his own; that is now clearer than ever. And, though it does make it one of the darker Joey books, as they also pointed out, it still makes me root for him even more.

Highly recommended for fans of the Joey sagas — and even for those new to the books.

6 comments to “Joey the Jittery”

  1. I listened to Gantos read the book in the audio version. Joey’s moment with his grandmother just brought me to tears.

  2. Somehow, I missed reading these, although I did read Hole in My Life, which was great. I heard him speak at a conference once. He drew us a picture map of his old neighborhood. He was extremely funny and interesting, and I’d love to hear him present again.

  3. Sara, I took a class with Gantos once, a week-long course on picture books. He made us each write one, and it’s the hardest writing assignment I ever had. And mine sucked mightily, I might add.

    He was absolutely hysterical and personable and smart as hell. My favorite story from that week was when he found out that The Body Farm at UT existed, and he kept joking all week, asking if he should go visit The Body Farm or Dollywood while he was in town. He chose The Body Farm and took an extended trip there during a lunch break one day in class. When he hadn’t returned but all the students were back, my prof asked me to get up and tell “The Elephant’s Child” to bide time, a story I had memorized word-for-word and told in another course (a storytelling course). When he sneaked in during the middle of my story and started listening to me, I slipped in — with my best poker face — the phrase “wicked cool” in the middle of all this Kipling beauty, ’cause it’s a phrase Gantos liked to use a lot. I made him laugh, which was, like, one of the best moments of my life, ’cause he’s great.

    And I’ll never forget how he started off the course — with this slide show of the best picture books and why they rock, with pictures of Max and The Stupids and such. He had such enthusiasm for the subject matter.

    Sara, I really think you’d like the Joey books SO MUCH, but then I can’t fairly recommend more books to you, since I haven’t cracked yet the last one you recommended to me (that I really do want to read).

    Camille, I’d LOVE to hear him read those stories. Never have. And, yes, that chapter about visiting his grandmother’s grave is perfection.

  4. I could start a whole fan site about Gantos.

    I was lucky enough to book him for a day at my school years ago (before he received his Newbery honor, price-wise) and it was probably one of the most memorable days I ever experienced. He drew countless Rotten Ralphs for my daughter, gave talks that my principal still references.

    He was so funny that I actually had a teacher FALL OFF HER CHAIR because she was laughing so hard.

    I know he keeps diaries, I wish he would start a blog we could read. His once a year updates (now gone) on his site were hilarious.

  5. Camille, if you start a Gantos fan site, I’ll be your assistant or cyber-floor-sweeper or whatever you need. Someone give that man a Newbery already!

    I LOVE that story about someone literally falling off her chair laughing. I also interpreted for him once before (may I add that his action-packed stories are challenging to put into the spatial language that American Sign Language is?), and he had everyone in stitches. He really is funny.

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