- Houghton Mifflin, 2007, $16
The story is set in the 1940s, in that hinge time between movie worship and the cult of TV. Protagonist Nedward Wentworthstein is a young boy who one day tells his eccentric father he’d like to eat in a restaurant shaped like a hat. To his surprise, his father replies, “Not only will we eat in the hat, we will all go and live in Los Angeles, California!” And faster than you can say the Brown Derby, the whole family’s left its Chicago home and boarded a train, headed for a new life in Hollywood.
Neddie’s adventures begin en route, through encounters with a Native American shaman whose name may or may not be Melvin; Billy, a ghostly bellhop; and a boy named Seamus whose movie-star father specializes in swashbuckling roles.
He also meets up with Sandor Eucalyptus, a bad guy who tries to steal the carved-stone turtle the shaman has given to Neddie. It’s apparently an ancient totem that’s extremely rare and powerful. The fate of the very world could be resting on its small stone back—and on (gulp) our Neddie himself.
Life in Los Angeles ushers in a cast of characters no one but Pinkwater could have dreamed up (or gotten away with). Storylines twist and turn as the plot grows fantastically thicker. It’s all fodder for the author’s talent for laugh-out-loud dialect and characterization.
There’s Mr. McDougal, the “tin hat” (station master) Ned meets in Flagstaff, Arizona, when he steps off the train and it leaves without him. “You’re a peep?” asks the tin hat. “And you missed your varnish? The Super Chief is highballing and you’re stuck out on track seven.”
And the Leprechaun Man, “who always wore a blue blazer with brass buttons, and a ship captain’s hat, and he talked to himself, mostly about the Little People. ‘Aroo, Arrah, it’s the end of the world entirely. We’re banjaxed for a fact. There’s to be lashings of giants, and ballyhooly, with the banshee screaming, bedad.’”
And then there’s Crazy Wig (aka Nishdugedack), a prophesy spouter with a furry, horned hat. “Los Angeles is in great peril,” he declares, “maybe doomed. Ancient prophesies tell us that a large catastrophe is about to happen. Gigantic animals nobody has ever seen before will be rampaging in the streets.”
Incredibly, this concoction of high-flying fancy is partly based on reality: Pinkwater spent some of his childhood in Hollywood. And even though the author’s plotting isn’t quite at the level of his ability to entertain—the momentum is more road rally than race to the finish line—his signature cast of “weirdballs” keeps the story wiggling, if not pushing forward, as the climax draws near.
As the narrative tightens, the silliness rises. Does Neddie have the real turtle, or a fake? Will he save the world on the night of the 12,000th full moon? And equally important, will he ever learn to like jelly doughnuts?
Pinkwater, who’s also well known for his role as a children’s book commentator on NPR, has authored a hundred books. He’s taken a unique (and quite generous) marketing step with this book: He’s been serializing chapters on his website, www.pinkwater.com, something he likens to sneaking children into a circus tent. The entire Neddiad won’t be posted until well after the book’s publication date, later this month. Meanwhile, the website provides an enticing preview for established Pinkwater fans and gives new ones an excellent way to sample his delightfully quirky offerings.