November 8, 2007

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I Am Not Joey Pigza, by Jack Gantos (2007, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 216 pages)
Reviewed by Katherine Welsh news@hippopress.com

This is the fourth installment in the story of Joey Pigza, a boy of 11 or so who is unusual because of his ADHD and his spectacularly dysfunctional family. Joey and his mother have finally found themselves a measure of stability when Joey’s absent father reappears, after winning the Lotto, with a new look, a new philosophy, and even a new name. He whisks Joey and his mother off into a new life that, at times, seems too good to be true. Joey must decide whether to buy into his father’s vision and forgive the wrongs of the past, as he feels his familiar life and even his identity slipping away.

All of the Joey Pigza books have kooky plots, but what really stands out is Gantos’s writing. He manages to make the novel both devastating and extremely comical at the same time. The story is told in the first person, and Gantos has gone to great lengths to replicate the thought patterns of a person with ADHD (or at least his understanding of said thoughts). The results are impressive, if sometimes dizzying. Joey’s descriptions of his family life are breathtakingly matter-of-fact. His world is all he knows, and so to him it is, if not quite normal, at least inevitable. It was only after I stopped reading that I really realized how exceptionally difficult Joey’s circumstances were. On the other hand, Joey himself seems almost too self-aware. At times, Joey’s explanations of his own thoughts and behaviors read like a lecture from Gantos on Why We Should Not Look Down on Those Who Are Different.

I definitely think the Joey Pigza series is worth reading, but I would not recommend starting with this book. The series begins with 1998’s Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key, and really needs to be read in order. Without having read the previous books, the reader won’t understand the “transformation” of the parents, especially the father. Neither will the reader who starts with this fourth book fully understand the import of Joey’s dilemma about whether or not to forgive his father for things he has done in the past.

Although this novel is about a child, and certainly marketed toward children, I found myself wondering whether children would actually get as much out of it as adults would. As mentioned above, one of the stand-out qualities of I Am Not Joey Pigza is Joey’s shockingly matter-of-fact narration of really awful events. I’m not sure that younger readers would necessarily catch this complexity. The stream-of-consciousness narration might also baffle some young readers; I lost track of it a few times, and I survived reading Ulysses. B+Katherine Welsh