Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Four Deadly Sins

Lust. Gluttony. Greed. Sloth. Envy. Wrath. Pride.

But enough about my weekend.

Today's blog is about a series of unusual books by William Pene Du Bois, each focusing on one of the vices known as the "seven deadly sins." Such topics were standard fare in Sunday School books of the past,

but by the swinging sixties, a series of children's books on sins must have seemed almost anachronistic.

Yet Mr. Du Bois treated these transgressions with sly, often wacky, humor, allowing readers to laugh at his errant protagonists as he simultaneously made a moral point.

The first book in the series, LAZY TOMMY PUMPKINHEAD (1966) concerns slothful Tommy Pumpkinhead, who lives in an "electric house" that takes care of all his needs. In the morning, Tommy's bed lifts to the ceiling and plunks him into a tub of water. He then slides down a chute to get into his clothes and is fed breakfast from an "eating machine." Most of the book's appeal comes from the color illustrations depicting the amusingly complex inventions that do all of Tommy's work for him. ...When an electrical outage occurs, Tommy's life is turned upside down and he realizes (a bit abruptly) that "I really must turn over a new leaf."

Vanity is the sin du jour in PRETTY PRETTY PEGGY MOFFIT (1968), the story of a girl so obsessed with checking out her own appearance (not just in mirrors, but in store windows, puddles, and raindrops) that she suffers a series of accidents and costs herself a role in a film. Readers will laugh at Peggy's vanity as she falls into duckpounds and coal-chutes but, once again, the protagonist learns her lesson too quickly on the very last page of the story. Incidentally, the book's title character appears to be based -- at least in appearance -- on real-life model Peggy Moffitt, best known for her work with fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, whom Du Bois acknowledges on the copyright page ("Miss Moffitt's clothes designed, as usual, by Rudi Gernreich.") See the resemblance?

Though the first two volumes might be classified as picture books, PORKO VON POPBUTTON (1969) feels more like an intermediate-grade novel, with a greater focus on text than illustration. This story of a 274 lb. boy who transforms from class laughingstock "Porko Van Popbutton" to slender ice-hockey hero Pat O'Sullivan Pinkerton reaches a more satisfying conclusion than the earlier books. It's also the best-known volume in the series, partially because the text and some of the illustrations were printed in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED just before the book was published.

The fourth book, CALL ME BANDICOOT (1970) also emphasizes text -- and it has fewer illustrations than any of the previous volumes. In this story, the nameless narrator (who seems to be based on Du Bois himself) meets young con artist Ermine Bandicoot on the Staten Island ferry. Bandicoot tells an elaborate tale, which touches on such contemporary topics as water pollution and the dangers of cigarettes, while extorting free food from the narrator. As always, Du Bois's gift for invention is evident in the story and color artwork (particularly the elaborate creation of a giant cigarette to be placed in the hand of the Statue of Liberty as part of an anti-smoking campaign) but the book also offers a touch of pathos, a nice message about storytelling, and a neat final twist that makes us wonder exactly who is exhibiting the sin of greed in this story.

CALL ME BANDICOOT was the final volume in this series.

That's right, William Pene Du Bois published only four books about the seven deadly sins. And then he just...stopped.

So we have no book on envy.

No book on wrath.

No book on lust.

And I was so looking forward to that one.

I've checked a number of reference sources, but have never found any information about why the series went unfinished.

(I hope the reason wasn't sloth.)

I think the fact that this series is incomplete ultimately hurt its reputation. The publisher couldn't do a paperback reissue with matching covers, couldn't do a "Seven Deadly Sins" box set. This series is seldom even discussed today. Of course the books do have some other problems as well. The individual volumes vary in style, tone, and quality. Sometimes they end too abruptly. The silly character names and outlandish illustrations occasionally make the books seem like spoofs. And while never preachy, per se, the moral lessons are often pretty transparent.

Reading the books forty years after publication, I'm surprised by how dated they've become. The pop-art cover images and references to Charles De Gaulle and Lyndon Johnson bespeak a different era. And some of the illustrations -- such as a tomahawk-touting sports mascot -- would never cut it today. Yet at the same time, the subject matter itself -- the vices of sloth, pride, gluttony, and greed -- remain timeless. Everyone can relate to them.

Whether it's 1966 or 2009, let's face it -- sin never goes out of fashion.


Charlotte said...

fascinating- thanks!

Stephanie said...

Thanks so much for this post! As our girls practiced hockey last night, my husband said he wished he could find this book he read as a kid -- couldn't remember the title or author but described it to me. A search on "hockey story gluttony children's book" brought up your post -- won't he be surprised when I come home from the library with this book!