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joey pigza loses control

20 february 2011

Joey Pigza Loses Control, a Newbery Honor Book in 2001, is one of the rare children's baseball novels that I've missed in the past couple of decades – though I suppose now I haven't missed it any more.

The second of four novels about its title character, Joey Pigza Loses Control is both an entry in a largely non-sport series, and a true baseball novel. If we adopt Michael Oriard's definition of a sport novel as one that wouldn't exist if the sport were removed, Joey Pigza Loses Control certainly qualifies. The central plot arc involves Joey pitching for his dad's Police Athletic League team, trying to lead them to the league championship. The plot culminates in a big game. And the "control" of the title is both Joey's psychological grip on himself, and his fastball's grip on the strike zone. This is a sport novel for sure, but it puts sport into a more extended context of psychiatry, families in crisis, and the American working poor.

The novel has things in common with other highbrow juveniles c.2000: troubled but resourceful kid, shunted around an extended family; feckless parents; feisty grandmother. It has lots of absurd slapstick action. The appalling thing about it, though, is that the slapstick action, unlike that of most other juveniles, is mostly enacted out on a ledge. And it's all about as funny as cancer.

In its seriousness, Joey Pigza Loses Control resembles Louis Sachar's Holes and Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee, also honored by Newbery juries. But it is less comforting than even those two novels. As a reading experience it reminded me, bizarrely, of James Frey's notorious Million Little Pieces. As in Frey's "memoir," energy sizzles off the page, and dangerous incidents multiply. Loses Control continuously enacts Joey Pigza's own "wiredness," his term for the hyperactivity and Attention Deficit Disorder that are actually never named in the book.

To make matters infinitely worse, all of the significant adults in Joey's world are more wired than he is. Joey's grandmother extorts cigarette money from the kid, and makes him push her and her oxygen tank to a field where she chips golf balls at him. Joey's dad flushes Joey's meds down the toilet and dissolves into alcoholism himself. Joey's mom drops Joey in his dad's care under duress, but then goes AWOL herself, getting a makeover, losing her driver's license, and generally being barely able to cope. The calmest character in the novel is Joey's explosive Chihuahua, Pablo.

There isn't a shred of redemption in Joey Pigza Loses Control. Even the title bodes ill for the result of the Big Game. I have rarely read such descriptions of manic behavior outside of the pages of Dostoevsky. The book is extremely impressive, but in a way that begs several questions of genre and audience. It's nominally a children's book, because the narrator is a pre-adolescent boy. (Put aside for the moment the basic impossibility of the narrative – nobody as wired as Joey could tell his own story, let alone craft it so remarkably. But that's a modernist convention: people have been telling stories from altered or extraordinary states since Faulkner and Joyce, if not Edgar Allan Poe.)

But the book is not really for children. What could they possibly take from it? That life is essentially a surrender to implacable drives, a surrender that will result in your inability to cope with anything – your inability even to lapse into a stultifying depression? That adults just cannot figure things out, stop behaving selfishly, or protect kids from the world in the absolute slightest? Even if that's true, do you want a fifth-grader reading it?

In some ways, Joey Pigza Loses Control represents the ultimate defeat of protectiveness and sanguine father-knows-best ideologies in children's fiction. Carter Pigza really does not know best. The man should have himself taken away from him, let alone his child.

This is a dark revenge on the mid-20th-century cultural imperative that Dad could solve any problem over a pipe, slippers, and newspaper. Now in a sense that ideology always enclosed the seeds of its own destruction. Nobody now watches Leave it to Beaver without assuming that as soon as they're off camera, June will start shooting up and Ward will drive downtown to a cathouse. Nobody probably ever watched the show without such assumptions, which is one reason why it's still viable, while the even blander and more buttoned-down actual Father Knows Best languishes unwatched.

But rarely has any repressive force been so exploded as the nuclear family in Joey Pigza Loses Control. Though here's where the notions of genre and audience come into play. As an adult fiction, Joey Pigza Loses Control is hardly remarkable. In many ways, it's not highly unlike fictions of futile parenting from Henry James's What Maisie Knew (1897) through Edith Wharton's The Children (1928) to Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to any movie where Alan Arkin plays the grandfather. In actual fact the mode of Joey Pigza Loses Control has been explored many times: just not for audiences of little kids themselves.

Gantos, Jack. Joey Pigza Loses Control. New York: Farrar, 2000.