Bantam edition | 1978
Novel - $1.95 (in 1978, that is)
Meet Chris Boyd -- teenage nurd
So begins the back cover blurb
's attempt at selling Confessions of a Teenage Baboon
. I bought it second hand from a Salvation Army
, and just the "nurd
" alone would have been enough, whether it cost me twenty five cents or not. Published 1977, by Paul Zindel
, it is a slim paperback
decorated with what seem like promises of wacky, young adult adventures
. "This is a warning to any kid with a heart condition. What I'm going to confess to you is so mindboggling that it may haunt you for the rest of your life", quotes the front cover, underneath the image of a short boy hiding inside an overcoat. Well, kids, you better believe that Paul Zindel makes good on that
promise. Teenage Baboon
is not light reading.
Teenage Baboon is narrated by 16 year old Chris Boyd, and takes place in the fictional Staten Island neighborhood of Oakwood Kills (based on Oakwood Heights?). He begins his story with the usual Zindel funny business -- for example, he describes Staten Island as a "detached retinae". Then he goes on to tell us about his mother, a shoplifting neurotic of a nurse named Helen. Rather pathetically, she never steals anything too valuable. She's more of the sort who will sneak away cans of soup or packs of gum. She and Chris move around a lot because Helen serves as an live-in aide to the sick, the elderly, and the occasional newborn baby.
Helen is clearly not all there, to the extent that she forces Chris to pee in a milk bottle so that "he doesn't get in the way" of the families she looks after. Chris's father walked out on her, and all that's left is his overcoat. Chris himself is rather pathetic. He doesn't take care of himself, and is a spineless wimp in front of his mother. He lives in the shadow of his father, who's been long gone and didn't seem to mind leaving his son with a flake.
The events in the book happened when Chris was 15, after Chris and his mother moved into the Dipardi household to take care of the ailing Carmelita. She's very old and very much dying, but the book doesn't make her into a wisdom spouting earth mother.
No, that role is given to her son, who at first glance is nothing more than an oily lowlife. Lloyd Dipardi is 30 years old and still lives at home. When Chris first meets him, he's drinking Wild Turkey bourbon in the kitchen. He spends lots of money buying stereo equipment and beer for the local teenagers. As a matter of fact, one of the teens is with him, and Lloyd bosses the boy around as if he were a servant. Lloyd's first line of dialogue is, "I was supposed to work, but I decided to get loaded for the occasion."
Lloyd is truly the tragic hero of Teenage Baboon. For half the book, he comes across as a jackass, a greasy dock worker with a violent streak who bullies the teenagers he surronds himself with (fortunately, it doesn't occur to Zindel to work the pedophilia angle). He's cruel to Chris, making fun of him for not having any friends, calling him retarded and a loser. Then he and Chris have a heart-to-heart after Chris is forced into helping him commit insurance fraud. He somehow becomes sympathetic.
No, really, Don't laugh.
The book ends similarly to the last few chapers of The Pigman: with a massive party full of drunken teenagers, and with a body count. I don't want to give the climax away, but suffice to say that it's very harsh, violent, and depressing. I guess "emotionally harrowing" sums it up.
Teenage Baboon, like many of Zindel's books, catches your attention via its superficial quirkiness, then drags you into a story that is cathartic and sometimes painful to read about. Unlike the others, however, Teenage Baboon is fairly depressing throughout, with only the first chapter providing any real levity. The Pigman had banter between the two narrators and scenes of real joy, while Teenage Baboon has kids and adults getting beaten and nearly everyone getting wasted in one form or another.
Only Chris and Lloyd have any depth; the climax is a little rushed; sometimes the characters seem like props to which Zindel can attach lines of dialogue. It's not the best young adult novel out there. I guess what I like about it is how honest it is. It's not subtle with its message, but what would be the point in that? When Lloyd grabs Chris and screams at him, he's applying a zen slap to both Chris and the reader: shape up or you won't survive. Subtlety would just soften the impact.