The Pigman, Zindel’s first young adult novel, has been called a groundbreaking work. Zindel’s portrayal of high school students struggling with their own problems in their own environments introduced a new type of adolescent fiction. The Pigman was revolutionary in that Zindel moved away from more cautious traditional juvenile fiction to a kind of writing that depicted teenagers and their problems with candor and seriousness. The Pigman established a style of writing for young adults which became almost a formula for teen novels (including Zindel’s own) after 1968.
The Pigman records the adventures of two high school students whose search for fun leads to the death of a lonely old man. Like Zindel’s novels that follow, it is written in a style which has been described as an accurate capturing of the “bright, hyperbolic sheen of teen-age language.”
The two teenagers who tell the story, John Conlan and Lorraine Jensen, assume responsibility for alternating chapters in what they call an “epic.” Characteristically, John is the dominant personality. As in most of his novels, the principal characters are two teenagers of opposite sex, with the male typically taking the leading role. In novels such as My Darling, My Hamburger, the boy serves as narrator, but in The Pigman and A Begonia for Miss Applebaum the task is shared, with each narrator responsible for alternating chapters. Notes, drawings, and reproductions of clippings are interspersed throughout the text, a device that Zindel uses less than successfully in some of his later novels.
The adults in The Pigman are treated unsympathetically, as they are in Zindel’s plays. They are frequently unable to establish an adequate home environment, and they find most of the interests of the young either uninteresting or unimportant. Even school is categorized as unimportant. Lorraine’s mother, like Betty Frank, often attempts to keep Lorraine at home to clean house, as she sees no practical advantage in an education. When Lorraine says that a Latin test is important, her mother responds by saying she is sure that later in life Lorraine will be using Latin daily.
Parents are referred to derisively and in most instances are portrayed as being far less astute than their children, who, unlike their parents, are able to perceive the sources of problems, solve them, and in the process gain new insights hidden from their parents and other adults in the stories. Perhaps because of his own experience, Zindel sometimes appears unable to appreciate parental effort. In an introduction to The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Zindel referred to his mother’s efforts to support her family as “an endless series of preposterous undertakings.” John Conlan reflects Zindel’s attitude when he refers to his father as “the Bore” and assumes that Mr. Conlan is interested only in stocks.
The boys in Zindel’s novels often follow John’s practice of referring to their parents only by a derogatory nickname. In I Never Loved Your Mind, for example, Dewey Daniels refers to his parents as “the Engineer” and “the Librarian.” The use of sobriquets underscores Zindel’s portrayal of adults as one-dimensional, monomaniac figures; it explains why teenagers such as John and Lorraine must seek their fun outside the family circle. Excitement may be found only among their peers, or in the company of adults such as Mr. Pignati, who is capable of varying from dull routine and can find fun in doing simple things.
Following his habit of using “life models” for the characters in his novels and plays, the characters in The Pigman are based on people Zindel has known. Lorraine’s mother, like Betty Frank in The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, is modeled after Zindel’s mother. Like Beatrice Zindel, Mrs. Jensen is a single parent working as a practical nurse, and, like Zindel’s mother, Mrs. Jensen restocks her kitchen and bathroom shelves with items stolen from her clients.
Zindel has admitted that it was his own “interrupted adolescence” that prompted him to write for young adults and that his stories, in the main, are his own attempts to resolve problems left over from those years. As a result of this compulsion to solve problems, Zindel’s novels always place the main characters in situations requiring the solution of a major youth-related problem. As the problem is solved, Zindel’s teenagers (and Zindel himself) learn lessons and gain new insights. When the lesson does not seem obvious, Zindel may spell it out at the end of the novel, as he does in The Pigman. Speaking through John Conlan, Zindel says that life is what the individual makes it. Ultimately, there is “no one else to blame.” People, like baboons, “build their own cages.”