Read an Excerpt
Trying to Save Piggy Sneed
By John Irving
Ballantine Books Copyright © 1997 John Irving
All right reserved.
TRYING TO SAVE PIGGY SNEED
This is a memoir, but please understand that (to any writer with a good imagination) all memoirs are false. A fiction writer's memory is an especially imperfect provider of detail; we can always imagine a better detail than the one we can remember. The correct detail is rarely, exactly, what happened; the most truthful detail is what could have happened, or what should have. Half my life is an act of revision; more than half the act is performed with small changes. Being a writer is a strenuous marriage between careful observation and just as carefully imagining the truths you haven't had the opportunity to see. The rest is the necessary, strict toiling with the language; for me this means writing and rewriting the sentences until they sound as spontaneous as good conversation.
With that in mind, I think that I have become a writer because of my grandmother's good manners and--more specifically--because of a retarded garbage collector to whom my grandmother was always polite and kind.
My grandmother is the oldest living English Literature major to have graduated from Wellesley. She lives in an old people's home now, and her memory is fading; she doesn't remember the garbage collector who helped me become a writer, but she has retained her good manners and her kindness. When other old people wander into her room, by mistake--looking for their own rooms, or perhaps for their previous residences--my grandmother always says, "Are you lost, dear? Can I help you find where you're supposed to be?"
I lived with my grandmother, in her house, until I was almost seven; for this reason, my grandmother has always called me "her boy." In fact, she never had a boy of her own; she has three daughters. Whenever I have to say good-bye to her now, we both know she might not live for another visit, and she always says, "Come back soon, dear. You're my boy, you know"--insisting, quite properly, that she is more than a grandmother to me.
Despite her being an English Literature major, she has not read my work with much pleasure; in fact, she read my first novel and stopped (for life) with that. She disapproved of the language and the subject matter, she told me; from what she's read about the others, she's learned that my language and my subject matter utterly degenerate as my work matures. She's made no effort to read the four novels that followed the first (she and I agree this is for the best). She's very proud of me, she says; I've never probed too deeply concerning what she's proud of me for--for growing up, at all, perhaps, or just for being "her boy"--but she's certainly never made me feel uninteresting or unloved.
I grew up on Front Street in Exeter, New Hampshire. When I was a boy, Front Street was lined with elms; it wasn't Dutch elm disease that killed most of them. The two hurricanes that struck back to back, in the '50s, wiped out the elms and strangely modernized the street. First Carol came and weakened their roots; then Edna came and knocked them down. My grandmother used to tease me by saying that she hoped this would contribute to my respect for women.
When I was a boy, Front Street was a dark, cool street--even in the summer--and none of the backyards was fenced; everyone's dog ran free, and got into trouble. A man named Poggio delivered groceries to my grandmother's house. A man named Strout delivered the ice for the icebox (my grandmother resisted refrigerators until the very end). Mr. Strout was unpopular with the neighborhood dogs--perhaps because he would go after them with the ice tongs. We children of Front Street never bothered Mr. Poggio, because he used to let us hang around his store--and he was liberal with treats. We never bothered Mr. Strout either (because of his ice tongs and his fabulous aggression toward dogs, which we could easily imagine being turned toward us). But the garbage collector had nothing for us--no treats, no aggression--and so we children reserved our capacity for teasing and taunting (and otherwise making trouble) for him.
His name was Piggy Sneed. He smelled worse than any man I ever smelled--with the possible exception of a dead man i caught the scent of, once, in Istanbul. And you would have to be dead to look worse than Piggy Sneed looked to us children on Front Street. There were so many reasons for calling him "Piggy," I wonder why one of us didn't think of a more original name. To begin with, he lived on a pig farm. He raised pigs, he slaughtered pigs; more importantly, he lived with his pigs--it was just a pig farm, there was no farmhouse, there was only the barn. There was a single stovepipe running into one of the stalls. That stall was heated by a wood stove for Piggy Sneed's comfort--and, we children imagined, his pigs (in the winter) would crowd around him for warmth. He certainly smelled that way.
Also he had absorbed, by the uniqueness of his retardation and by his proximity to his animal friends, certain piglike expressions and gestures. His face would jut in front of his body when he approached the garbage cans, as if he were rooting (hungrily) underground; he squinted his small, red eyes; his nose twitched with all the vigor of a snout; there were deep pink wrinkles on the back of his neck--and the pale bristles, which sprouted at random along his jawline, in no way resembled a beard. He was short, heavy, and strong--he heaved the garbage cans to his back, he hurled their contents into the wooden, slat-sided truck bed. In the truck, ever eager to receive the garbage, there were always a few pigs. Perhaps he took different pigs with him on different days; perhaps it was a treat for them--they didn't have to wait to eat the garbage until Piggy Sneed drove it home. He took only garbage--no paper, plastic, or metal trash--and it was all for his pigs. This was all he did; he had a very exclusive line of work. He was paid to pick up garbage, which he fed to his pigs. When be got hungry (we imagined), he ate a pig. "A whole pig, at once," we used to say on Front Street. But the piggiest thing about him was that he couldn't talk. His retardation either had deprived him of his human speech or had deprived him, earlier, of the ability to learn human speech. Piggy Sneed didn't talk. He grunted. He squealed, He oinked--that was his language; he learned it from his friends, as we learn ours.
We children, on Front Street, would sneak up on him when he was raining the garbage down on his pigs--we'd surprise him: from behind hedges, from under porches, from behind parked cars, from out of garages and cellar bulkheads. We'd leap out at him (we never got too close) and we'd squeal at him: "Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEEE!" And, like a pig-panicked, lurching at random, mindlessly startled (every time he was startled, as if he had no memory)--Piggy Sneed would squeal back at us as if we'd stuck him with the slaughtering knife; he'd bellow OINK! out at us as if he'd caught us trying to bleed him in his sleep.
I can't imitate his sound; it was awful, it made all us Front Street children scream and run and hide. When the terror passed, we couldn't wait for him to come again. He came twice a week. What a luxury! And every week or so my grandmother would pay him. She'd come out to the back where his truck was--where we'd often just startled him and left him snorting--and she'd say, "Good day, Mr. Sneed!"
Piggy Sneed would become instantly childlike--falsely busy, painfully shy, excruciatingly awkward. Once he hid his face in his hands, but his hands were covered with coffee grounds; once he crossed his legs so suddenly, while he tried to turn his face away from Grandmother, that he fell down at her feet.
"It's nice to see you, Mr. Sneed," Grandmother would say--not flinching, not in the slightest, from his stench. "I hope the children aren't being rude to you," she'd say. "You don't have to tolerate any rudeness from them, you know," she would add. And then she'd pay him his money and peer through the wooden slats of the truck bed, where his pigs were savagely attacking the new garbage--and, occasionally, each other--and she'd say, "What beautiful pigs these are! Are these your own pigs, Mr. Sneed? Are they new pigs? Are these the same pigs as the other week?" But despite her enthusiasm for his pigs, she could never entice Piggy Sneed to answer her. He would stumble, and trip, and twist his way around her, barely able to contain his pleasure: that my grandmother clearly approved of his pigs, that she even appeared to approve (wholeheartedly!) of him. He would grunt softly to her.
When she'd go back in the house, of course when Piggy Sneed would begin to back his ripe truck out of the driveway--we Front Street children would surprise him again, popping up on both sides of the truck, making both Piggy and his pigs squeal in alarm, and snort with protective rage.
"Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEEE!"
He lived in Stratham--on a road out of our town that ran to the ocean, about eight miles away. I moved (with my father and mother) out of Grandmother's house (before I was seven, as I told you). Because my father was a teacher, we moved into academy housing--Exeter was an all-boys school, then--and so our garbage (together with our non-organic trash) was picked up by the school.
Now I would like to say that I grew older and realized (with regret) the cruelty of children, and that I joined some civic organization dedicated to caring for people like Piggy Sneed. I can't claim that. The code of small towns is simple but encompassing: if many forms of craziness are allowed, many forms of cruelty are ignored. Piggy Sneed was tolerated; he went on being himself, living like a pig. He was tolerated as a harmless animal is tolerated--by children, he was indulged; he was even encouraged to be a pig.
Of course, growing older, we Front Street children knew that he was retarded--and gradually we learned that he drank a bit. The slat-sided truck, reeking of pig, of waste, or worse than waste, careered through town all the years I was growing up. it was permitted, it was given room to spill over--en route to Stratham. Now there was a town, Stratham! In small-town life is there anything more provincial than the tendency to sneer at smaller towns? Stratham was not Exeter (not that Exeter was much).
In Robertson Davies's novel Fifth Business, he writes about the townspeople of Deptford: "We were serious people, missing nothing in our community and feeling ourselves in no way inferior to larger places. We did, however, look with pitying amusement on Bowles Corners, four miles distant and with a population of one hundred and fifty. To live in Bowles Corners, we felt, was to be rustic beyond redemption."
Stratham was Bowles Corners to us Front Street children--it was "rustic beyond redemption." When I was 15, and began my association with the academy--where there were students from abroad, from New York, even from California--I felt so superior to Stratham that it surprises me, now, that I joined the Stratham Volunteer Fire Department; I don't remember bow I joined. I think I remember that there was no Exeter Volunteer Fire Department; Exeter had the other kind of fire department, I guess. There were several Exeter residents--apparently in need of something to volunteer for?--who joined the Stratham Volunteers. Perhaps our contempt for the people of Stratham was so vast that we believed they could not even be relied upon to properly put out their own fires.
There was also an undeniable thrill, midst the routine rigors of prep-school life, to be a part of something that could call upon one's services without the slightest warning: that burglar alarm in the heart, which is the late-night ringing telephone--that call to danger, like a doctor's beeper shocking the orderly solitude and safety of the squash court. It made us Front Street children important; and, as we grew only slightly older, it gave us a status that only disasters can create for the young.
In my years as a firefighter, I never rescued anyone--I never even rescued anyone's pet. I never inhaled smoke, I never suffered a burn, I never saw a soul fall beyond the reach of the safety bag, Forest fires are the worst and I was only in one, and only on the periphery. My only injury--"in action"--was caused by a fellow firefighter throwing his Indian pump into a storage room where I was trying to locate my baseball cap. The pump hit me in the face and I had a bloody nose for about three minutes.
There were occasional fires of some magnitude at Hampton Beach (one night an unemployed saxophone player, reportedly wearing a pink tuxedo, tried to burn down the casino), but we were always called to the big fires as the last measure. When there was an eight- or ten-alarm fire, Stratham seemed to be called last; it was more an invitation to the spectacle than a call to arms. And the local fires in Stratham were either mistakes or lost causes. One night Mr. Skully, the meter reader, set his station wagon on fire by pouring vodka in the carburetor--because, he said, the car wouldn't start. One night Grant's dairy barn was ablaze, but all the cows--and even most of the hay--had been rescued before we arrived. There was nothing to do but let the barn burn, and hose it down so that cinders from it wouldn't catch the adjacent farmhouse on fire.
But the boots, the heavy hard hat (with your own number), the glossy black slicker--your own ax!--these were pleasures because they represented a kind of adult responsibility in a world where we were considered (still) too young to drink. And one night, when I was 16, 1 rode a hook-and-ladder truck out the coast road, chasing down a fire in a summer house near the beach (which turned out to be the result of children detonating a lawn mower with barbecue fluid), and there--weaving on the road in his stinking pickup, blocking our importance, as independent of civic responsibility (or any other kind) as any pig--was a drunk-driving Piggy Sneed, heading home with his garbage for his big-eating friends.
We gave him the lights, we gave him the siren--I wonder, now, what he thought was behind him. God, the red-eyed screaming monster over Piggy Sneed's shoulder--the great robot pig of the universe and outer space! Poor Piggy Sneed, near home, so drunk and foul as to be barely human, veered off the road to let us pass, and as we overtook him--we Front Street children--I distinctly heard us calling, "Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEEE!" I suppose I heard my voice, too.
We clung to the hook-and-ladder, our heads thrown back so that the trees above the narrow road appeared to veil the stars with a black, moving lace; the pig smell faded to the raw, fuel-burning stink of the sabotaged lawn mower, which faded finally to the clean salt wind off the sea.
In the dark, driving back past the pig barn, we noted the surprisingly warm glow from the kerosene lamp in Piggy Sneed's stall. He had gotten safely home. And was he up, reading? we wondered. And once again I heard our grunts, our squeals, our oinks--our strictly animal communication with him.
The night his pig barn burned, we were so surprised.
The Stratham Volunteers were used to thinking of Piggy Sneed's place as a necessary, reeking ruin on the road between Exeter and the beach--a foulsmelling landmark on warm summer evenings; passing it always engendered the obligatory groans. In winter, the smoke from the wood stove pumped regularly from the pipe above Piggy's stall, and from the outdoor pens, stamping routinely in a wallow of beshitted snow, his pigs breathed in little puffs as if they were furnaces of flesh. A blast from the siren could scatter them. At night, coming home, when whatever fire there was was out, we couldn't resist hitting the siren as we passed by Piggy Sneed's place. It was too exciting to imagine the damage done by that sound: the panic among the pigs, Piggy himself in a panic, all of them hipping up to each other with their wheezy squeals, seeking the protection of the herd.
That night Piggy Sneed's place burned, we Front Street children were imagining a larkish, if somewhat retarded, spectacle. Out the coast road, lights up full and flashing, siren up high--driving all those pigs crazy--we were in high spirits, telling lots of pig jokes: about how we imagined the fire was started, how they'd been having a drinking party, Piggy and his pigs, and Piggy was cooking one (on a spit) and dancing with another one, and some pig backed into the wood stove and burned his tail, knocked over the bar, and the pig that Piggy danced with most nights was ill-humored because Piggy wasn't dancing with her . . . but then we arrived, and we saw that this fire wasn't a party; it wasn't even the tail end of a bad party. It was the biggest fire that we Front Street children, and even the veterans among the Stratham Volunteers, had ever seen.
The low, adjoining sheds of the pig barn appeared to have burst, or melted their tin roofs. There was nothing in the barn that wouldn't burn--there was wood for the wood stove, there was hay, there were 18 pigs and Piggy Sneed. There was all that kerosene. Most of the stalls in the pig barn were a couple of feet deep in manure, too. As one of the veterans of the Stratham Volunteers told me, "You get it hot enough, even shit will burn."
It was hot enough. We had to move the fire trucks down the road; we were afraid the new paint, or the new tires, would blister in the heat. "No point in wasting the water," our captain told us, We sprayed the trees across the road; we sprayed the woods beyond the pig barn. It was a windless, bitter cold night, the snow as dry and fine as talcum powder. The trees drooped with icicles and cracked as soon as we sprayed them. The captain decided to let the fire burn itself out; there would be less of a mess that way. It might be dramatic to say that we heard squeals, to say that we heard the pigs' intestines swelling and exploding--or before that, their hooves hammering on the stall doors. But by the time we arrived, those sounds were over; they were history; we could only imagine them.
This is a writer's lesson: to learn that the sounds we imagine can be the clearest, loudest sounds of all. By the time we arrived, even the tires on Piggy's truck had burst, the gas tank had exploded, the windshield had caved in. Since we hadn't been present for those events, we could only guess at the order in which they had taken place.
If you stood too close to the pig barn, the heat curled your eyelashes--the fluid under your eyelids felt searing hot. If you stood too far back, the chill of the winter night air, drawn toward the flames, would cut through you. The coast road iced over, because of spillage from our hoses, and (about midnight) a man with a Texaco emblem on his cap and parka skidded off the road and needed assistance. He was drunk and was with a woman who looked much too young for him--or perhaps it was his daughter. "Piggy!" the Texaco man hollered. "Piggy!" he called into the blaze. "If you're in there, Piggy--you moron--you better get the hell out!"
The only other sound, until about 2:00 in the morning, was the occasional twang from the tin roof contorting--as it writhed free of the barn. About 2:00 the roof fell in; it made a whispering noise. By 3:00 there were no walls standing. The surrounding melted snow had formed a lake that seemed to be rising on all sides of the fire, almost reaching the level of heaped coals. As more snow melted, the fire was being extinguished from underneath itself.
And what did we smell? That cooked-barnyard smell of midsummer, the conflicting rankness of ashes in snow, the determined baking of manure - the imagination of bacon, or roast pork. Since there was no wind, and we weren't trying to put the fire out, we suffered no smoke abuse. The men (that is to say, the veterans) left us boys to watch after things for an hour before dawn. That is what men do when they share work with boys: they do what they want to do; they have the boys tend to what they don't want to tend to. The men went out for coffee, they said, but they came back smelling of beer. By then the fire was low enough to be doused down. The men initiated this procedure; when they tired of it, they turned it over to us boys. The men went off again, at first light--for breakfast, they said. In the light I could recognize a few of my comrades, the Front Street children.
With the men away, one of the Front Street children started it--at first, very softly. It may have been me. "Piggy, Piggy," one of us called. One reason I'm a writer is that I sympathized with our need to do this; I have never been interested in what nonwriters call good and bad "taste."
"Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! Piggy! OINK! WEEE!" we called. That was when I understood that comedy was just another form of condolence. And then I started it; I began my first story.
"Shit," I said--because everyone in the Stratham Volunteers began every sentence with the word "shit."
"Shit," I said. "Piggy Sneed isn't in there. He's crazy," I added, "but nobody's that stupid."
"His truck's there," said one of the least imaginative of the Front Street children,
"He just got sick of pigs," I said. "He left town, I know it. He was sick of the whole thing. He probably planned this--for weeks."
Miraculously, I had their attention. Admittedly, it had been a long night. Anyone with almost anything to say might have easily captured the attention of the Stratham Volunteers. But I felt the thrill of a rescue coming--my first.
"I bet there's not a pig in there, either," I said. "I bet he ate half of them--in just a few days. You know, he stuffed himself! And then he sold the rest. He's been putting some money away, for precisely this occasion."
"For what occasion?" some skeptic asked me. "If Piggy isn't in there, where is he?"
"If he's been out all night," another said, "then he's frozen to death."
"He's in Florida," I said. "He's retired." I said it just that simply--I said it as if it were a fact. "Look around you!" I shouted to them. "What's he been spending his money on? He's saved a bundle. He set fire to his own place," I said, "just to give us a hard time. Think of the hard time we gave him," I said, and I could see everyone thinking about that; that was, at least, the truth. A little truth never hurt a story. "Well," I concluded. "He's paid us back--that's clear. He's kept us standing around all night."
This made us Front Street children thoughtful, and in that thoughtful moment I started my first act of revision; I tried to make the story better, and more believable. It was essential to rescue Piggy Sneed, of course, but what would a man who couldn't talk do in Florida? I imagined they had tougher zoning laws than we had in New Hampshire--especially regarding pigs.
"You know," I said, "I bet he could talk--all the time. He's probably European, " I decided, "I mean, what kind of name is Sneed? And he first appeared here around the war, didn't he? Whatever his native language is, anyway, I bet he speaks it pretty well. He just never learned ours. Somehow, pigs were easier. Maybe friendlier," I added, thinking of us all. "And now he's saved up enough to go home. That's where he is!" I said. "Not Florida--he's gone back to Europe!"
"Atta boy, Piggy," someone cheered.
"Look out, Europe," someone said, facetiously.
Enviously, we imagined how Piggy Sneed had gotten "out"--how he'd escaped the harrowing small-town loneliness (and fantasies) that threatened us all. But when the men came back, I was confronted with the general public's dubious regard for fiction.
"Irving thinks Piggy Sneed is in Europe," one of the Front Street boys told the captain.
"He first appeared here around the war, didn't he, sir?" I asked the captain, who was staring at me as if I were the first body to be recovered from this fire.
"Piggy Sneed was born here, Irving," the captain told me. "His mother was a half-wit; she got hit by a car going the wrong way around the bandstand. Piggy was born on Water Street," the captain told us. Water Street, I knew perfectly well, ran into Front Street--quite close to home.
So, I thought, Piggy was in Florida, after all. In stories, you must make the best thing that can happen happen (or the worst, if that is your aim), but it still has to ring true.
When the coals were cool enough to walk on, the men started looking for him; discovery was a job for the men--it being more interesting than waiting, which was boys' work.
After a while, the captain called me over to him. "Irving," he said. "Since you think Piggy Sneed is in Europe, then you won't mind taking whatever this is out of here."
It required little effort, the removal of this shrunken cinder of a man; I doused down a tarp and dragged the body, which was extraordinarily light, onto the tarp with first the long and then the short gaff. We found all 18 of his pigs, too. But even today I can imagine him more vividly in Florida than I can imagine him existing in that impossibly small shape of charcoal I extricated from the ashes.
Of course I told my grandmother the plain truth, just the boring facts. "Piggy Sneed died in that fire last night, Nana," I told her.
"Poor Mr. Sneed," she said. With great wonder, and sympathy, she added: "What awful circumstances forced him to live such a savage life!"
What I would realize, later, is that the writer's business is both to imagine the possible rescue of Piggy Sneed and to set the fire that will trap him. It was much later--but before my grandmother was moved to the old people's home, when she still remembered who Piggy Sneed was--when Grandmother asked me, "Why, in heaven's name, have you become a writer?"
I was "her boy," as I've told you, and she was sincerely worried about me. Perhaps being an English Literature major had convinced her that being a writer was a lawless and destructive thing to be. And so I told her everything about the night of the fire, about how I imagined that if I could have invented well enough--if I could have made up something truthful enough--I could have (in some sense) saved Piggy Sneed. At least saved him for another fire--of my own making.
Well, my grandmother is a Yankee--and Wellesley's oldest living English Literature major. Fancy answers, especially of an aesthetic nature, are not for her. Her late husband--my grandfather--was in the shoe business; he made things people really needed: practical protection for their feet. Even so, I insisted to Grandmother that her kindness to Piggy Sneed had not been overlooked by me--and that this, in combination with the helplessness of Piggy Sneed's special human condition, and the night of the fire, which had introduced me to the possible power of my own imagination . . . and so forth. My grandmother cut me off.
With more pity than vexation, she patted my hand, she shook her head. "Johnny, dear," she said. "You surely could have saved yourself a lot of bother, if you'd only treated Mr. Sneed with a little human decency when he was alive."
Failing that, I realize that a writer's business is setting fire to Piggy Sneed--and trying to save him--again and again; forever.
Excerpted from Trying to Save Piggy Sneed by John Irving Copyright © 1997 by John Irving. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.