The tone of this novel is unstable, shifting with the narrator and the events being narrated. John's tone is often humorous, especially when he relates one of his misdemeanors:
Did you ever hear a herd of buffalo stampeding? Thirty-four scrawny, undernourished apples rolling up the aisles sound just like a herd of buffalo stampeding. (1)
John's tone, especially toward the end, can also be sincere. Describing Lorraine, he says, "She lifted her glass, and she was lovely" (11).
As a narrator, Lorraine is usually straightforward and sincere, but she can also come up with inventive descriptions:
Norton has eyes like a mean mouse, and he's the type of kid who thinks everyone's trying to throw rusty beer cans at him. (4)
Like all works of literary fiction, The Pigman focuses on style, psychological depth, and character. The three major characters have psychological depth – they have conflicts and contradictions in their characters, and they change as the story progresses.
And family drama? Where should we start? Lorraine's and John's families are beyond dysfunctional. John especially is in a perpetual conflict with his parents, over his hair, his career choice, his music – everything. Lorraine comments that "the analysts would call [John's] family the source problem" (1). (For more on family, see the discussion of family in "Themes.")
What, or who, exactly, is the Pigman? Does it mean "a swineherd" (someone who herds pigs) as the dictionary states? Or a 2008 low-budget horror film? (It's not related to the book, by the way.) We find out fairly quickly; in the first sentence, John refers to "this old guy we nicknamed the Pigman" (1).
But why name the book after a pet name John and Lorraine give to Mr. Pignati, the Pigman? Well, because at the end of the book, when Mr. Pignati dies, John and Lorrain agree to write a "memorial epic" about their friendship with Mr. Pignati. The story that we're reading is supposed to be their "memorial epic," dedicated to the memory of their friend. For more on Mr. Pignati, check out our discussion of him in "Characters."
The ending is none too cheerful. Mr. Pignati dies on the floor of the monkey house at the zoo. Lorraine blames John and herself for his death, yelling "We murdered him!" John says that he "wanted to yell at her, tell her [Mr. Pignati] had no business fooling around with kids. […] When you grow up, you're not supposed to go back. Trespassing—that's what he had done" (15). Why does John think this trespassing – spending time with kids and acting young – was wrong?
A few pages later, John reflects that he and Lorraine had trespassed, too, "and we were being punished for it. Mr. Pignati had paid with his life. But when he died something in us had died as well" (15). Again, this notion of trespassing. What does John mean?
After this, he writes: "There was no one else to blame anymore. […] Our life would be what we made of it—nothing more, nothing less" (15). What is the significance of this quotation? Does it mean that John and Lorraine are growing up, learning to take responsibility for their actions?
Consider the final, haunting sentences of the novel: "Baboons. Baboons. They build their own cages, we could almost hear the Pigman whisper, as he took his children with him" (15). Who are the children? The baboons? But only one, Bobo, has died. What else could "his children" refer to?
Although John and Lorraine make a trip to Manhattan with Mr. Pignati, the rest of the action takes place on Staten Island, the southern-most of New York City's five boroughs. (Incidentally, Paul Zindel was born on Staten Island and went to college there.) John and Lorraine never refer specifically to the time setting of their story, and never refer to any historical events. However, it seems clear that the story is taking place at about the same time the novel was published, 1968. (See "In a Nutshell" for more about 1968 and the historical context of the novel.)
The Pigman is a relatively short, easy read. There's hardly any tough vocabulary. It's the questions it asks that grab you and make you think, such as "Are John and Lorraine responsible for Mr. Pignati's death?" This novel asks questions like this, and doesn't provide any easy answers.
The style throughout is carried out with simple sentences that seem like they could have been part of a conversation. John writes:
Now Lorraine can blame all the other things on me, but she was the one who picked out the Pigman's phone number. If you ask me, I think he would have died anyway. (1).
"Now," "she was the one who," "if you ask me" – don't all these sound just like someone talking?
The monkeys, at the zoo, of course, are in literal cages. But nearly every character is in a metaphorical cage. John feels trapped by his father's expectation that John will become a businessman like himself; John's father is trapped in his narrow world at the Coffee Exchange; John's mother is trapped by her obsession with cleaning; Lorraine is trapped by her mother's suspicions; Lorraine's mother is trapped in her awful job; Mr. Pignati is trapped in his grief over his wife's death.
One moment at the zoo (at the bat exhibit), which Lorraine thinks is an omen, explores the cage as metaphor:
[…] a little kid about ten years old who was sitting right up on the railing and leaning against the glass of the bat cage. Only he wasn't looking at the bats. He was looking at you when you came to look at the bats. And when I came up to the cage to see these ugly blood-sucking creatures, I had to look right into this little kid's face that had a smirk on it. He made me feel as though I was a bat in a cage and he was on the outside looking in at me. It all made me very nervous. (6)
Wow! That's quite a passage! We knew Lorraine was slightly paranoid, but this is weird.
Lorraine describes Bobo as "the ugliest, most vicious-looking baboon I've ever seen in my life" (6), and the zoo attendant who feeds him says, after his death: "Can't say I feel particularly sorry about it because that baboon had the nastiest disposition around here" (14). And yet Mr. Pignati loves Bobo, feeds him treats, worries about him, and calls him his "best friend" (6). Bobo seems to function as some sort of surrogate son, and points to the fact that Mr. Pignati is kind of fond of misfits, whether their animals (like Bobo) or humans (like John and Lorraine). John later discusses baboons as a symbol:
And maybe Lorraine and I were only a different kind of baboon in a way. Maybe we were all baboons for that matter—big blabbing baboons—smiling away and not really caring what was going on as long as there were enough peanuts bouncing around to think about— […] baffled baboons concentrating on all the wrong things. (15)
Mr. Pignati's prized pig collection, which is hidden in a small room behind a black curtain, seems to symbolize his happy life with Conchetta. The collection got started, he tells John and Lorraine, when he gave Conchetta a white ceramic pig, to remind her of him. John tells us that there are "glass pigs and clay pigs and marble pigs" (5) – all breakable materials. When the pig collection gets smashed, this seems to symbolize the end of Mr. Pignati's life and his will to live.
This game centers around a story about a murder of an adulterous wife. The players have to decide who is to blame for her death. The game seems to stand as an allegory for one of the central questions the novel raises: Who is responsible for Mr. Pignati's death? Is it the person who set the entire plot in motion? The person whose actions immediately caused the death? Does the wife's betrayal of her husband symbolize John and Lorraine's betrayal of Mr. Pignati?
The "three little monkeys in a cage that were hugging each other like crazy" are a symbol of Lorraine, John, and Mr. Pignati's friendship. Thinking of how they must look as they roller-skate out of Beekman's, Lorraine makes this analogy herself:
We must have looked just like three monkeys. The Pigman, John, and me—three funny little monkeys. (8)
The point of view in this novel is really interesting; John and Lorraine narrate alternate chapters and we get both of their perspectives. We also see each of the main characters described through the other's eyes: Lorraine, for instance, can be quite critical of John. If only one of them were narrating, we would have a much different story. The first-person point of view can also be limiting: would an omniscient narrator give us a different impression of John's father, for instance?
This initial situation takes awhile to set up, five chapters, in fact. They think his smile, his pig collection, and his messy house are a little weird, but they immediately like him.
Even before John and Lorraine meet Mr. Pignati, John protects him by telling Dennis and Norton he and Lorraine are not going to collect the money because Mr. Pignati caught on that Lorraine was not really from a charity and hung up. As the novel progresses, Norton's threats become stronger.
Norton meets John at the cemetery and asks John if Mr. Pignati has anything worth stealing, specifically what kind of electronics he has. Angry that John is not forthcoming with information, he threatens to "pay a visit" to Mr. Pignati "real soon" (9).
Angry that he has not been invited, Norton shows up at the party. He steals electrical equipment and smashes the pigs, looking for money. Mr. Pignati comes home from the hospital unexpectedly and sees the ruin of his pigs and his wife's clothes.
We don't know what is going to happen. Will Mr. Pignati forgive John and Lorraine? Will he understand that they never intended the destruction that occurred? What will happen to John and Lorraine when they go home?
Lorraine tells her mother about her and John's friendship with Mr. Pignati and she and her mother become somewhat closer. John's parents tell him he will have to see a psychologist; they will forget all about this in a few days. John and Lorraine call Mr. Pignati to apologize and offer to help clean up. They suggest a trip to the zoo. When Mr. Pignati learns that Bobo has died, he has a second heart attack and dies.
On the floor of the monkey house with Mr. Pignati's body, John thinks how sad it is that people can be as lonely as Mr. Pignati was. The position of Mr. Pignati's head disturbingly reminds John of his father. He thinks how futile the lives of his parents' generation are. He and Lorraine sadly leave the zoo, hand in hand.
Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes (4): This classic novel, first published in 1943, details the experiences of a teenaged boy during the Revolutionary War. This novel is featured in John's especially creative version of "the dog ate my homework," narrated by Lorraine:
One time last term Miss King asked [John] what happened to the book report he was supposed to hand in on Johnny Tremain, and he told her that he had spilled some coffee on it the night before, and when the coffee dried, there was still sugar on the paper and so cockroaches at the book report. (4)
Immediately after this anecdote, there is another: we learn that the only part of Johnny Tremain that John read was page 43, "where the poor guy spills the molten metal on his hand and cripples it for life" (4). John, Lorraine tells us, got a 90 on this book report, while she, having read the whole thing, got an 85.