THE BOOK: Pie Man.
PUBLISHED IN: 2017.
THE AUTHOR: John Surowiecki
THE EDITOR: Dr. James Brubaker.
THE PUBLISHER: Southeast Missouri State University Press, Cape Girardeau, MO.
SUMMARY: On his seventh birthday, Adam Olszewski tries to leave his family’s house, but can’t. Although the protagonist of the story that follows this unusual state of affairs is young Adam, the fact is he has little to say in it. The narrative is provided by a number of other people: his father, his tutor, his doctor, his neighbors in the Connecticut city where the Olszewskis reside, and a few of the immigrant workers employed by his mother’s Pie Man pie business.
Throughout the novel Adam is a mystery, the subject of rumors and gossip among his neighbors. He will not leave his bedroom, let alone his house, believing that the house is alive and needs him. More than that, he believes that he and the house are the same living entity, and that to walk an inch outside its purview will result in immediate and painful death.
Pie Man explores Adam’s education and coming of age as an island adrift in a humble working-class neighborhood. Eventually Adam’s world begins to expand through his mother’s pie-making business and as he observes the world outside his window. Pie Man is about community (the neighborhood changes ethnically over the course of the story), but it’s also about what’s normal. As Michael Downs put it: the novel is “a reminder that the greatest act of love is to make room for people who are strange and inexplicable.”
Pie Man was the winner of the 2017 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel.
THE BACK STORY: When I was growing up in Meriden, CT, a Polish immigrant family moved in next door. There was a rumor that the young son was a hermit who never left his house. I tried to look for him in one of the windows, but without success. I never knew if the boy ever existed, but the idea stayed with me and intrigued me all those years. Maybe that I’m a bit of a hermit myself could be part of my fascination.
WHY THIS TITLE? Adam’s mother makes fabulous pies and starts her own little business in her kitchen making pies for small grocery stores and other retail places. She calls her business Pie Man Pies (after the child’s poem), but neighborhood kids think it’s Adam who makes the pies. They start calling him Pie Man, even though Adam keeps to himself in his room as his mother and her immigrant helpers make all the pies. The business eventually is a success and the irony of Adam’s upstairs isolation and his mother’s booming business downstairs soon becomes apparent.
WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT TO READ IT? It’s a novel of voices so the narrative landscape changes a lot and the reader, one hopes, is less likely to lose interest. Narrators include: Adam’s father, a chief mechanic at an Aircraft company; Adam’s tutor who becomes his best friend and is quite a card; his neighbor who’s movie-star beautiful and returns from a failed journey to California; a Pie Man worker who imagines she’s seen Adam and invades his room; an intellectually precocious neighbor who befriends Adam; and many others. It’s also a biography of a neighborhood and how it changes ethnically and otherwise over a span of fifty years. And it’s a comment on our future. One day Adam’s father, Adam’s friend and Adam are talking about the future (Adam is behind the closed door to his room). The father and friend say the future will be inhabited with people who have plenty of leisure time, who are super-brainy, etc. Adam says no. The future will be inhabited by people like him, hermits, secluded, isolated. In Pie Man, reclusion is also a metaphor for what we are becoming.
“The narrators are humble people of post-World War II America, working in local factories and restaurants and other establishments. These characters are as vivid as the novel’s protagonist, their interior lives just as fascinating and expressed in often passionate riffs.” —James Coleman
“John Surowiecki gives the reader more than a life, He’s shown how one life touches others and how others touch one life.” —Michael Downs.
“In focusing on this second generation immigrant family and the successful home-based business called Pie Man Pies, Surowiecki adroitly dramatizes a profusion of sometimes wrenching, sometimes comic, often exhilarating scenes.” — John Wenke.
AUTHOR PROFILE: I grew up in Meriden, Connecticut, a city once famous for its silverware industry (it’s called Silverton in Pie Man). Both my parents were factory workers and bartenders (my father claimed he once served Judy Garland). I received my BA in English from the University of Connecticut in 1966 and my MA in 1976 (I am, alas, a PhD dropout). I’ve worked as a journalist, copywriter, teacher, hotel reservation manager, encyclopedia salesman (one day), creative director, freelance writer, waiter, bus boy, filmmaker. I have two children (Vanessa, a former union organizer, and John Edward, a musician) and three grandsons: Jerzy, Edward Stanislaus, and Ishmael. My wife, Denise, is a retired attorney and an avid and tireless supporter of my work. Pretty boring, huh?
AUTHOR COMMENTS: This book has a lot of autobiographical material, but it’s not about me. I hate memoirs.Pie Man is mostly a work of imagination and observation.
The narrator of this chapter is Beatrice Targonski (known as Miss T.), Adam’s tutor, who take the job fresh out of college. In this chapter she describes a special part of Adam’s curriculum (he’s of high-school age here). As you can see she is very big on dashes.
Now and then I brought up reclusion as a seminar subject, beginning with the early Christian hermits, the Desert Fathers, St. Paul of Thebes, St. Jerome — all of whom had survived in the wilderness in part because of their belief in the purity of the human heart and the primacy of love. It was a lesson that resonated with Adam. He liked it that the ancient recluses were sources of radiance and compassion and spiritual good.
There was a difference, however. The Christian hermits felt dirtied by contact with human society — which just wasn’t the case with Adam. He wasn’t disgusted by the human condition. He wasn’t intolerant of human weakness or repulsed by human folly and stupidity. He was simply afraid of being outside his room — as if the air there was poisonous, as if we —the rest of the world — emanated deadly ultraviolet rays or something. He loved his parents, he liked me and he couldn’t get enough of Mrs. Wrobel next door and her movie stars, but there was something in the outside world that threatened him, promised to do him in — something so frightening, so dangerous, so terrible that he didn’t even like to talk about it — he never brought it up and he wouldn’t discuss it when I did. He said he had to live alone in his room. He seriously believed that the instant he left his room would start the short countdown to the end of his life.
His hero was Jeremy Bentham — the Hermit of Queen Square Place. Bentham wanted nothing less than to create a mathematics of happiness — felicific calculus — then redefine and rework the whole of civilization, basing it all on a single principle — the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
The idea delighted Adam — but, he said, it didn’t go far enough. It was, by definition, exclusionary. Someone’s good fortune would still be accompanied — in whole or in part — by someone else’s misfortune or loss. The Benthamic principle, he said, should be amended to: the greatest good for all — always.
Adam took to another of the hermit’s ideas — the panopticon, a Bentham-designed prison, semicircular in shape like a protractor — in which a single guard could oversee a large population of inmates in a single glance — and do so without being seen. I thought the design repulsive and inhumane, but Adam said I shouldn’t to think of it as a penal model — no one had ever built such a prison anyway — but as a model for his house and his life! The world might buzz around him, an enormous and complex hive — but he was always at its heart. He was always at the center of his own geography — the hermit of 7 Peru Street — all-seeing and unseen.
For Adam the world was what he saw through the rectangle of his bedroom window. I’m assuming this is true, of course, since I’ve never seen the inside of his bedroom — but I had imagined it and dreamed about it so often I felt as if I knew it as well as I knew my own room at home. I knew where his desk was, where he kept his pencils, where the bookshelf — built by Mr. O. when Adam was a boy — was and the TV and just about everything else.
Anyway, I’m deducing — or guessing — that the bottom of the window’s rectangle was taken up by a view of the property-defining wire fence — in the summer overrun with cucumber vines — and a small part of Mrs. Olszewska’s tomato garden. On the other side of the fence and — running through the middle of the window’s rectangle — was the walkway and, behind it, the pale blue cape owned by Mrs. Wrobel. She lived on the first floor while, over the years, renters occupied the second, mostly tired, unlucky, harmless old men whose wives had left them or who had never married — men who pumped gas or pushed brooms and walked down Peru Street with pints of Four Roses or Imperial in wrinkled twisted brown bags sticking out of their pockets — men who paid the rent on time and gave the neighborhood children gifts and candies, thunderstruck by their innocence and gawking at them as if they were angels or rare flowers.
The walkway began at Peru Street with a cement stairway and a right angle of privet hedge that defined Mrs. Wrobel’s modest front yard. The walkway continued as an easement through the Glowac property and ended at the Kosciuszko Club on Jefferson Street — the city’s main thoroughfare and a few blocks east of downtown. Only twenty or so feet wide, the walkway was owned by the K-Club to provide its members easy access to St. Paul’s Church — since a great many of the Club’s functions were Church-related — wedding and funeral receptions, breakfasts, fund-raising bazaars and the like. The walkway also gave neighborhood drunks easy access to the K-Club bar — and it wasn’t unusual on a warm, pleasant night for Adam, staring out his window, to watch the old men stagger home, singing love songs from the war or talking to invisible comrades. In the winter, after a big snowstorm, the neighborhood children would sled the entire length of the walkway — from Peru Street all the way to Jefferson Street. Sometimes the sledders went beyond the sidewalk and ended up in traffic on the thoroughfare, but this was only hearsay — the braggadocio of boys — I’ve heard them myself — returning with their sleds in tow, crowing about how fearless and reckless they had been and how close to death they had come, which neither Adam nor I believed for a second.
Through the far left of the window, Adam could see the front porch of the house owned by the Rocque’s — the noisiest of neighbors — plus he could probably see the duplex at the corner of Peru and Bolivia Streets, with the St. Paul’s spire behind it in the distance. He could also see the horse chestnut tree on Bolivia and most of Kozak’s market — located in the downstairs half of a two-story building. Mr. and Mrs. Kozak and their daughter, Wanda, lived in the cramped quarters upstairs and for years had been planning a move to the suburbs. Visible at the far right of the rectangle were Mrs. Wrobel’s backyard and a huge rhubarb patch — planted long ago by the late Mr. Wrobel — the Glowac’s mighty but mutilated oak and the crumbling stockade fence with it long gray spikes that the neighborhood children occasionally dislodged and used as spears.
OUTLETS: Probably the best way to buy it is directly through the publisher, Southeast Missouri StateUniversity Press, One University Plaza, MS 2650, Cape Girardeau, MO 63701.www.semopress.com.
WHERE ELSE TO BUY IT: I guess Amazon.
CONTACT THE AUTHOR: You can reach me at email@example.com