Jack Plum was disfigured from birth, macro-cephalic. He takes care of his crippled mother, who blames him for her miseries. His father, a butcher with ambitions to raise pigs instead of slaughtering them, vanished when Jack was a child. Jack is a familiar sort. He could be Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird
, one of the author’s favorite books. He is a social outcast, keeping himself away from a society that heaps nothing by ridicule and scorn on him, and is engaged by Holly, the Scout of this scenario. Or he could be the Frankenstein monster, a creature apart, learning the language of people without interacting with any but his maker, in this case his long-gone father and his mother, and yearning for a companion, but shunned for his ugliness. Unlike Shelley’s creation, this “monster” has constructed a subterranean space carved out of a field, a home for himself and his four-legged friends, relating to them as a tribe, finding purpose and comfort in their company in what he calls his “Pig Palace,” a safe, loving refuge that serves as the “Pigtopia” of the book’s title. He also has a rock to which he has attributed religious significance. He could be Benjy from The Sound and the Fury
, a source of familial shame, but possessing a gift of being able to see into people more than others. Here, Jack sees the truth behind a malevolent character’s actions. These literary similarities made Jack seem familiar to me despite his outward strangeness.
Also setting Jack apart is his language. Jack’s voice is in a pig-dialect, indicating his lack of formal education. It takes a while to adjust, but once one gets used to it, his language is quite understandable. Jack does see himself as a pig, for that is his only real social group until he and Holly find each other. How would
a person speak, and think, whose only human contact was a mother who hated him and whose only friends were non-human? I found this an effective device for the most part.
The book is structured as alternating narratives, Jack’s and Holly’s. Holly is a bright, articulate prepubescent teen, with an interest in botany. She is a pure soul, besieged by a fair-weather friend, Samantha, and is less than thrilled by the boys in her circle. Jack, watching the world from his refuge in Pardes Wood, takes an interest in her. (as Shelley’s big guy is attracted to innocence) It is not long before they meet and become friends.Pigtopia
is primarily the story of Jack and Holly’s friendship, two isolated souls who see the magic in each other, despite their “outsider-ness,” and separation from the world. Jack is of indeterminate age when we first meet him. But he possesses a child-like innocence, so the two are temperamentally, if not chronologically well-paired. Both live with their mothers. Jack’s mother is a gorgon who abuses him while at the same time relying on him to take care of her, as she is a wheelchair-bound alcoholic in failing health who never misses a chance to blame Jack for her miseries. Holly’s father took a powder years ago. Her mother is dating again and that freaks her out, as she fears she will be abandoned if mom settles in with a new husband. Jack is afraid he will be institutionalized should anything dire happen to his mother. This gives the friends common ground, and their shared fear binds them even closer.
Samantha is the dark spirit here. She pesters Holly to be her friend, even though Holly does not really want her around. Then Samantha hounds Holly relentlessly, trying to discover the nature of her relationship with Jack, who is generally regarded as the town freak. (Boo)
It does not take a lot to imagine that things will get rocky. But amid all the abandonment fears, and concerns about potential exposure of their association we get to see both Jack’s and Holly’s true beauty, what makes them unusual and wonderful people. Jack is well aware that if the outside world becomes aware of his friendship with Holly she will suffer for it. Holly sees past Jack’s outer form to his inner beauty, strength, intelligence and kindness. That makes this a very moving story, for we know that their relationship is doomed.
Fitzgerald adds a nice touch with the use of several Tarot card scenes to prepare one for upcoming events. That works well. We see, through Jack’s eyes, what ails Samantha, giving her character depth, and Jack is also our conduit to a fuller look at Holly’s mother’s new boyfriend Antony.
While I did enjoy the book, I was not hog-wild about it. There was the odd twist and turn, but the plot seemed to plod, with too few surprises. It was also a bit of a stretch that Jack had the reading ability portrayed. It seemed to me that his father left the scene too early in Jack’s life for him to have achieved mastery. Of course Frankenstein’s monster made do with eavesdropping, so I guess this is consistent if one focuses on that parallel. I did like that Jack had his own form of religion. What subgroup, whether of small or huge numbers does not? Holly seems to parallel this with her faith in tarot cards. Finally, I was not thrilled with the ending. I got the impression that the author had run out of steam and needed to shut down the story. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of Holly at the end. I found Jack’s ultimate pronouncements a bit jarring and the author’s resolution to the burgeoning crisis unsatisfying. So, I liked the book. There is much of value here. But there are elements that leave one wanting more. Overall then, my reaction to the book was sow-sow.
PS – here is a small interview with the author. It casts a little light on this particular work