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mr. popper's penguins

20 april 2011

Occasionally I become inadvertently hip. I heard about the 1938 children's book Mr. Popper's Penguins while reading the Reaktion Animal title Penguin by Stephen Martin. I scored a nice paperback copy at a new used-book store in Weatherford, Texas, across from the miscellaneous flea market that blooms in that town on "first Mondays": not an auspicious beginning to my hipness, perhaps. When I started reading the book last week, I searched the Web for images of Mr. Popper and his penguins, and the first thousand results included Jim Carrey. Come to find that the erstwhile Pet Detective is starring in a big summer-movie interpretation of Richard & Florence Atwater's 70-year-old chapter book. Once again, I'm accidentally ahead of the curve.

I fear the worst from the movie, and not really because of Jim Carrey. When Hollywood gets its hands on a simple children's book, they generally inflate it to gas-giant proportions and pump it full of sugar and caffeine, as if the first rule of children's films were to out-Pee-Wee Pee Wee Herman. It happened to Jumanji, and as Jim Carrey knows to his remorse, it happened to the Grinch. Fortunately, if it happens to Mr. Popper all I have to do is stay out of the multiplex during June 2011, which shouldn't be that difficult.

Mr. Popper's Penguins layers a simple fantasy plot over some profound, understated themes. Mr. Popper is a dreamy housepainter in middle America, who spends his evenings and winters reading about polar exploration. He's an artist manqué and an armchair naturalist. (He reminds me of myself.) He writes to the famous Admiral Drake at the South Pole, expressing his love of penguins; Drake responds by shipping Mr. Popper a crated penguin.

Upon the arrival of the penguin, Mr. Popper crosses over into fantasy, becoming one of the whimsical adults who populate early-20th-century children's stories, usually in the company of extraordinary animals, hot-air balloons, or both: the Wizard of Oz, Dr. Dolittle, William Waterman Sherman. There's nothing outright magical about the penguin Captain Cook, who quickly morphs into a family of twelve by acquiring a mate and ten chicks. But the logistics of keeping a penguin tribe afloat in Stillwater, USA transcend realism and become the stuff of pure delight.

How to feed them all? First goldfish out of the bowl, then canned shrimp. How to keep them cool? Bore holes in the icebox; then, build a rink in your basement. How to support their lifestyle? Train them as a vaudeville act.

The mounting impossibility of the situation, told with wonderful matter-of-factness by the Atwaters, points to Antarctic depths. Mrs. Popper stands for order amid her feckless husband's avocations. She's always worried about how hard it is to keep house with an untidy man sitting around all day; she rather prefers the cleanness of the penguins. (What the Poppers do with the undisclosed mountains of penguin manure is never brought up.) The Poppers turn nature and culture inside out, cooling their home in winter, trucking in great blocks of ice that melt and leak and dissolve the boundaries between them and the wild. The penguins channel their instincts (to climb and dive) into weird parodies of human activity which the Poppers can coin directly into money.

The messy fecundity of penguins and Poppers alike pumps energy into the story, and hints at the ever-burgeoning mysteries of life itself, not to go too rhapsodic on the Atwaters' simple conception. But while things are multiplying out of control, the narration is delightfully cool. Things simply happen. In some ways the book prefigures stories of household chaos like The Cat in the Hat, but without the anarchic disequilibrium of the Cat's voice. Mr. Popper stays innocent and cheerful, and is rewarded with a kind of transfiguration at novel's end. If I were Mr. Popper's therapist I'd say that none of this ever happened to him. He went home one fall night, switched on the radio, and had a long winter's dream of siring a brood of polar creatures.

Atwater, Richard, and Florence Atwater. Mr. Popper's Penguins. Illustrated by Robert Lawson. 1938. New York: Little, Brown, 1988.