Jack Gantos knocks people out with his comedy. Literally. I know of two speaking gigs where he has done so. In each instance, Jack was riffing away in the spotlight at the front of a school auditorium, wowing the crowd with a spoken rendition of his short story “Purple” from Jack’s New Power: Stories from a Caribbean Year, the second book in the cycle featuring his alter ego, Jack Henry.
In gory detail, this story depicts the character’s battle with a nasty plantar wart on his foot. Blood is gushing from the get-go, starting with the headless-chicken chase in the opening scene — so you have some idea of what you are in for. I know how it is for an audience huddled in a darkened auditorium with Jack up there swinging his cat: you can’t believe what you’re hearing, but you can’t stop listening, either.
As Jack the speaker got to the crowning (and gushing) moment, where kid Jack is gripping and ripping the wart from his foot with a pair of rusty needle-nose pliers, there came a crash from the back of the room heard over the howls and laughs of the rest of the audience. Both times, it was the sound of a squeamish kid fainting dead away, slumping to the ground from his or her seat.
That’s what I call powerful storytelling. And these were just listeners. There’s no telling how many readers have been knocked for a loop by this guy.
I know I was, when I first read him. In August 1992, his agent kindly sent me the manuscript for Heads or Tails: Stories from the Sixth Grade, the first Jack Henry book. I say “kindly” because I was just a toothless minnow in the food chain at FSG and have no memory of how she got my name. Jack had been writing picture books up till then, mainly the Rotten Ralph series, and this was his first longer work of fiction for middle-graders.
I still remember gut-laughing my way through his manuscript — and doing so every time I reread it. For me, as for many, the tears from laughter flow even more freely than the blood in Jack Gantos’s pages. From that first laugh onward, I knew this was an author I had to carry the torch for.
I also remember the day when our first review came in, a starred one by Michael Cart in School Library Journal. Cheeze-us-crust! It was a whip-smart analysis with a snappy sentence that nails the all-important aspect of so many of the characters Jack has created: “[Jack Henry’s] a survivor, an ‘everyboy’ whose world may be wacko but whose heart and spirit are eminently sane and generous.”
Jack Gantos writes for the “everyboy” in all of us, regardless if we are boy or girl. His books are all about heart and heartlessness, spirit and the absence thereof, sanity and insanity. His kids are often appealingly hapless yet heroic in unexpected ways, wacky blends of ordinary and extraordinary. They are adolescents still insulated in their own unique, somewhat cracked view of the world. They are smart kids and suckers at the same time, hopeful, bursting with schemes that are off the wall and ill advised, but they are never afraid to press ahead (Joey Pigza and the pencil sharpener, anyone?). They are often placed in extreme situations by the people who are supposed to protect and guide them, and so they frequently become more grown-up than the adults who rule their lives.
To get a handle on what makes Gantos tick, all you need to do is crack the spine on any of his books, because he has thrown gobs of his own history and personality into his protagonists. His personal story is always the clay with which he works.
This is true of the audacious self-portrait he paints in his YA memoir Hole in My Life. It’s the story of how he screwed up big-time as a young man by agreeing to help transport two thousand pounds of hashish to New York City. He got caught, went to prison, and found his way out, in large part because of his dedication to going to college and becoming a writer.
But the picture-book character Rotten Ralph is just as autobiographical. He’s the naughty red cat who embodies kid-id in everything he does, causing upheaval and trouble on every page. It can’t be all coincidence that Gantos wrote the first Rotten Ralph story just a short while after earning his release from prison, expressing a wish-fulfillment for any pent-up soul: wouldn’t it be great to not be afraid to push a few buttons, test some boundaries, and screw up now and then, always with the security of having somebody there like Ralph’s owner Sarah to catch you when you go too far?
Jack Henry and Joey Pigza are two other characters also prone to testing boundaries, and they share a lot more with the author than a four-letter first name. The author disguise may be thinner with Jack Henry, but both characters embody their creator’s indomitable spirit and refusal to follow a straight and narrow path. Jack Henry is a kid whose frequent setbacks never stop him from striving to get out of whatever compromising situation he’s painted himself into, even if it means getting stained head to toe with gentian violet as treatment for blood poisoning brought on by self-surgery with rusty pliers. Joey Pigza is a boy whose three main challenges — his mom, his dad, and his ADHD — run him ragged but never wear him out. He and aspiring-author Jack Henry are hilarious observers of the world around them; in their narrations, they persistently capture those special little details that put a whacked-out magical spin on things.
In Dead End in Norvelt, the author certainly puts a whacked-out magical spin on his western Pennsylvania childhood, transforming it into an amazing tapestry. The real Jack Gantos is very much that “Gantos boy” in the book in many biographical particulars, but not all. Jack grew up in Norvelt, was an awful nosebleeder, worshiped Eleanor Roosevelt, had a dad who snagged a Piper J-3 Cub airplane in a poker game, and knew a woman who was the direct inspiration for the amazing Miss Volker. But there’s a whole lot of stuff that’s made up. What’s fact and what’s fiction isn’t important. All that matters is that it’s all believable in one way or another, starting with the comedy.
One of many LOL moments in Norvelt comes in the opening pages, when Jack has been loaned out by his mother to help an elderly neighbor. On first arriving at her house, Jack witnesses Miss Volker boiling her hands in a pot on the flaming stove and then — as if that’s not bad enough (and “bad enough” is never enough with Gantos) — pulling her cooked hands out and, apparently, chewing off her skin. Cue fainting kid! In some kind of meta-moment, Jack Gantos the author uses his faint-inducing powers to zap his fictional self, knocking Jack Gantos out.
When the real Jack brings fictional Jack back to life, he doesn’t let the flesh-eating old biddy scare his boy off. He stays put. He recognizes a good thing when he sees it. He senses in an instant that this old gal, completely certifiable in some ways, is his ticket to knowledge and adventure. Especially since he’s been grounded for the summer and has nothing better to do.
It’s not all just fun and games with the real Jack. He loves to double you up, if not knock you out, with his outrageousness. And then when he’s got you right where he wants you, he uses the humor to push you into thinking differently about something. It can be a simple thing, such as the importance of not letting the embarrassment of being painted purple get the better of you. But it can also be something darker and deeper, up to and including that darkest and deepest of subjects, mortality.
In the first pages of Norvelt, young Gantos is playing war with his father’s souvenir Japanese sniper rifle. Some bloody funny things result right away, of course, and it’s the first of many moments where death and dying are dealt with in an almost playful manner. After all, it’s a novel about history, in which death and dying go hand in hand with dates and dictators.
But then comes a classic Gantos jolt. In the closing act of the book, that same rifle reappears, and a death happens that is shocking and sad and anything but playful. A confession: at first, I tried to talk Jack out of killing the deer after already bumping off all those poor elderly Norvelters—but he knew better and convinced me that there needed to be one serious death in the book. Not only does it give young Jack a chance to show off what he’s learned from Miss Volker about writing obituaries, but it makes all the other deaths in the book so much more resonant.
Publisher John Newbery — another guy who liked to surprise his audience — had a thing for the work of funny writers. One of the first books he brought out, way back in 1740, bore a title that began Miscellaneous Works Serious and Humerous (the silly spelling is his, not mine). He also published eighteenth-century wag Samuel Johnson, and the books he created for children were far more entertaining than such things had ever been before. So Mr. Newbery would have been amused and gratified to know that the ninety-first medal handed out in his name has been given this year to one of the most seriously “humerous” writers at work today.
Jack Gantos’s book Dead End in Norvelt won the 2012 Newbery Medal. Read his acceptance speech in the July/August 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.