Wednesday, June 15

Punch in New York

 written and illustrated by
Alice Provensen
Viking  1991


When the star of a famed Italian puppet theatre is stolen fro his owner he goes on a mischievous romp through modern day New York City only to realize there's no place like home... unless you get to rip off someone in the process.

Landing in New York, Il Professore Tucci-Piccini (all Punch puppeteers are referred to as Professor) has one of his bags stolen from him, the one containing his star, Mr. Punch. Back at the thieves den when they discover the suitcase is not full of money they toss Punch out of the window where he lands on a baker in the street and sets of on his very Punch-like adventure across the city. After a couple of isolated incidents Punch falls in with a pack of muggers and quickly becomes their leader, convincing them to help him steal the car of a wealthy man and driving it – preposterously across the roofs of buildings – to his home. Lauded for his excellent driving Punch is hired on as the regular chauffeur but he becomes lonely for his old family, the puppet theatre, and in the end manages to combine his old and new jobs into one sweet deal.

Punch has always been a bad boy, and his antics have always been enjoyed for their outrageousness. In updating the Punch tale, Provensen has found ways to incorporate some of the standby characters – policeman and alligator – in a way very much in keeping with modern times. Other, trickier characters such as the beadle, the devil, the hangman, and even Judy and the baby are sidelined probably because of how quickly they would become hot-button problems if introduced. In the traditional play Punch is a serial murderer and clearly that wouldn't do for a picture book. Instead, Provensen gives us a Punch without his historical trappings but with plenty of bad behavior that walks the tightrope between playful and dangerous.

Provensen's illustrations sit like stacks of multiple planes, almost naive in perspective. The large city scenes are crowded with textual details, names of stores and signs and places that suggest that nothing in New York is real unless it has a name attached to it. Some of the businesses are real (the Waldorf) while the rich man named Helmstrump seems an amalgam of Helmsley and Trump and his name appears on buildings throughout. It's difficult to know if Provensen is going for commentary or providing adults with an inside joke and I'm not quite sure it works either way. But the color palate of oil paint on velum is bright and bold

The historical origins of a Punch and Judy puppet show go pack to the 16th century Italian commedia dell'arte where a set of stock characters would perform farces that openly mocked the morality of decent people. Punch, a hunchbacked hooked-nosed dwarf, was an obnoxious braggart, a violent drunkard, and a coward who settled every disagreement with a paddle that was larger than himself. He would beat police and church figures, outwit the devil, and got away with murder, literally. The no one in their right mind would cheer for such a person in real life. This puppet surrogate allowed audiences to laugh at the folly of the bad guy getting away with it.

And I feel the need to interject here that this desire to root for the bad guy exists to this day in modern entertainment. We like to imagine ourselves getting away with it, yet at the same time feel relief in seeing the lawbreakers get caught or killed. It feeds our fantasies and then calms our sense of morality, but this need of a moral coda is a modern desire; we have come to a place where we would feel guilty without an explicit ending that the bad guys didn't get away with it, unable to allow our sense of morality rest unspoken. In that way we have become rather weak (or at least lazy) as a society when it comes to using our intellect while enjoying entertainment.

I mention this because the reason I had to check this book out was that someone pointed out a couple of bad reviews on this book on Amazon. I am beginning to believe that comments and product reviews on websites are proof of our failures in education and that they represent 90% of the population.  That aside, I was astonished (I shouldn't have been) that someone thought this book taught bad values ("values" being a the operative word that told me all I needed to know about the commenter) and two of the three reviewers felt the book should be banned. The one who complained about the values even suggested people not buy this "book" (the word book in quotes) as if somehow disagreeing with its content made it less of a book than one they agreed with.

Yes, I can see how if you believed that puppets could come to life, talk to people, drive cars around town, and generally create mischief, that you might believe the book is a deliberate attempt to teach young readers how to lie, cheat and steal. If you cannot tell the difference between a drawing of a fictitious character in a picture book and real people in the world – and worse, if you do not know how to have a conversation with your children to help them understand the differences between what is real and what isn't – then you have a bigger problem than can be solved by banning books. I don't think you need to be cultured in a way that you understand the history of Italian commedia and English puppet theatre in order to understand this book, but if you have a problem with this book then you're also going to have a hard time with gangster movies, with the moral ambiguities of James Bond, even with cute little picture books with talking animals in it; I can think of no greater lie than teaching kids animals can think, behave, and reason just like them.  I realize some people take the bible literally, as is their right to do so, but to apply that same standard to all books is to suggest that all fiction is real or that there's no difference between made-up stories and those in the bible.

Come on, is this really the state of our educational system today?

Is Punch in New York a great book? No, but it is a fine introduction to a classic buffoon from another time and place, where the people weren't so smart that they were offended by a broad farce.
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