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Monday, June 17, 2013

My favorite book about Chicago moviegoing

Posted By on 06.17.13 at 05:00 PM

The original hardcover jacket
  • The original hardcover jacket
In middle school my favorite author was Daniel Pinkwater and my favorite book was The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death, which he wrote in 1982. (Lizard Music, Pinkwater's first young-adult novel, was a close second.) I realize today that my admiration stemmed from how closely I identified with the main characters, a couple of misfit kids who bond over weird movies. Initially "Snarking out" refers to their ritual of slipping away in the middle of the night to see old movies at the 24-hour Snark Theater, but it comes to define a variety of late-night adventures: taking part in public debates, discovering hidden cafeterias, and helping Osgood Sigerson, the world's greatest detective, find a kidnapped mad scientist. I also realize now that I was drawn to the idea of moviegoing leading to adventures outside the theater—an idea I cherish to this day. But mainly I loved The Snarkout Boys, and Pinkwater's fiction in general, because it made me laugh so hard. The jokes were unpredictable and they never stopped coming. Here's a characteristic passage, from the start of chapter two:

A typical double bill [at the Snark] might consist of a Yugoslavian film (with subtitles), Vampires in a Deserted Seaside Hotel at the End of August, and along with it, Invasion of the Bageloids, in which rock-hard intelligent bagels from outer space attack Earth. Everybody gets bopped on the head until the scientists figure out a way to defeat the bageloids. I won't spoil the ending by telling what it is, but it has something to do with cream cheese.

I didn't realize in middle school that the book was inspired by the author's Chicago adolescence. Pinkwater was born in 1941 and lived on the near north side during the 1950s—The Snarkout Boys is thick with references to the city at the time. The Snark Theater is modeled after the old Clark Theater; the public debates are modeled after those that took place at Bughouse Square, across the street from the Newberry Library (renamed the "Blueberry Library"); and there are exaggerated descriptions of Old Town and Lower Wacker Drive ("Aufzoo Street," in Pinkwater's version) when both were still bohemian hangouts. Even one of the seemingly absurd elements, an old black man who performs around town with a dancing chicken, is based on a real-life Chicago figure.

Daniel Pinkwater in 2011
  • Cory Doctorow/Wikimedia Commons
  • Daniel Pinkwater in 2011
This is fun for local-history buffs, as is Pinkwater's The Education of Robert Nifkin, from 1998, which is more overtly autobiographical. But it's worth noting that The Snarkout Boys' loving portrait of 50s Chicago emerges from a particular form of cinephilia. Walter Galt, Pinkwater's alter ego, is moved to discover the city only after going to the Snark makes him want to discover the world. The programming traverses wide stretches of film history from one night to the next, democratizing cinema by presenting classics next to schlock. (Rereading the book last week, I was surprised to find a reference to Andrzej Wajda's Kanal mixed in with the made-up sci-fi features.) Part of the thrill of going is in being surprised—by the movies on-screen as well as the oddballs in the audience. As Pinkwater presents it, moviegoing better prepares you for city life in general—it encourages you to view the city as a great, interactive film.

The adolescent heroes of The Snarkout Boys learn this firsthand when they're drawn into a mystery plot that's a cross between an old Sherlock Holmes feature and cheesy 50s sci-fi. (I won't spoil the meaning of the title by telling what the avocado of death is, but it has something to do with realtors being possessed by extraterrestrials.) When the Lifeline Theatre staged an adaptation of the book in summer 1995, they emphasized this theme by having Walter narrate the story as a movie he'd one day like to make. That was a fantastic production. I've often wished to see it remounted—perhaps sometime in the middle of the night, across the street from a 24-hour coffee shop where old men rank their favorite Laurel and Hardy movies over chess.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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