Monday, December 22, 2014

Book Review: Porko von Popbutton

Book Title: Porko von Popbutton
Author: William Pène du Bois
Date: 1969
Publisher: Harper & Row
ISBN: none, but click here to see the cover
Length: 80 pages
Illustrations: full-color paintings by the author
Quote: “There were two rich birthday cakes at Pat O’Sullivan Pinkerton’s birthday party—one all for him and the other for his ten best friends.”
Sports records were set fairly easily in the twentieth century, when sports leagues hadn’t been keeping records for very long, and in the 1960s, apparently in a school match, a goaltender scored a goal. (Later Michel Plasse, and subsequently other adult athletes, actually did it in CHL, AHL, and NHL games.) This fact inspired William Pène du Bois, who was working on his Deadly Sins series, to invent a very fat boy who’d make a good first by simply filling up most of the goal, then by getting interested in the sport and shaping up.
So, fat Pat is sent to a hockey-oriented prep school, where his roommate, slim Jim, nags Pat into helping Jim practice hockey moves. Pat can’t even skate...but eventually he’s sent into an actual game, and although Jim finishes grade twelve in the blaze of glory he’s earned, Pat makes school history.
This is a sports story; it first appeared, in a shorter form, in Sports Illustrated. It is, however, funny enough to hold the attention of readers who normally don’t like sports stories. Pat’s and Jim’s constant wisecracks make them seem like caricatures of the usual one-dimensional characters in teen sports stories, yet somehow, by the end of the book, they seem like real, likable kids.
All four of the Deadly Sins books the author lived to complete are funny, but each is funny in a different way. Lazy Tommy Pumpkinhead was a purely silly excuse for William Pène du Bois to invent and draw science-fiction-ish gadgets; it’s not about the kind of Sloth to which we’re tempted. Pretty Pretty Peggy Moffitt is a slapstick comedy about the perils of vanity rather than the deadly sin of Pride; we don’t believe it’s true (although Peggy Moffitt was a real model) or take it seriously. Porko von Popbutton is less serious than Call Me Bandicoot, although at the time Porko von Popbutton did have its own implicit, dark, grown-up undercurrent—today’s children may not see anything controversial in the way Pat and Jim are painted, but in 1969 people did. It’s primarily for readers who want a short story with lots of action and lots of comedy.

Porko von Popbutton is, in my opinion, the best book William Pène du Bois ever wrote. Those who think of him primarily as an illustrator with a special flair for gadgets might feel more affection for one of his books with gadget pictures in them; I’m talking about the story itself. And apparently a lot of people share my opinion about this book, because while Call Me Bandicoot is easy to find, Porko von Popbutton has gone into the collector price range. (Aaarrrggghhh, I'm kicking myself for selling these two books together for $1.) To buy it here, you'd have to pay $35 for the book + $5 for shipping, and the author's not even in a position to use $4. Better you should buy something else from me...and demand that libraries keep or replace this one.