This is about the time I lived for two weeks in a motel in Rochester, New York, with my Uncle Mel, and what happened to me while I was there.
Background: Daniel Pinkwater’s 1970s work tends toward the surreal, featuring bizarre characters, moony hippie mysticism and satirical anti-corporate diatribes, along with nomenclature that would give ME Kerr a run for her money.
(He was briefly in the news a few years ago when an excerpt from one of his short stories appeared as part of New York State’s notorious standardized tests, to the bafflement of students, teachers and the author alike. Why any state bureaucrat would choose from Pinkwater’s aggressively zany catalog remains a mystery, although the author suggested that “this was done by someone who was barely literate.”)
Yobgorgle is definitely in this vein, a shaggy dog story that pays meticulous detail to its setting, only to go nowhere in particular.
The Plot: Jaded New Jerseyite Eugene Winkleman is pawned off on his Uncle Mel for six weeks while his parents go to Europe; when Uncle Mel has to attend a special training seminar for his job (installing vending machines), Eugene has no choice but to tag along for two weeks to Rochester, NY.
Uncle Mel is a junk food-junkie, and a particular fan of a chain called McTavish’s, home of the Greaso-Whammy burger, which Uncle Mel consumes by the dozen.
While Uncle Mel attends his vending machine training (“the new freeze-dried, mix, mush, and micro-wave machine was supposed to be real complicated”), Eugene tries to amuse himself in Rochester, as the temperature starts to creep past 90 degrees before 10 am.
Eugene takes in the Genesee River (“It isn’t much of a river compared to, say, the Hudson, but it makes it pretty much impossible to get lost in the middle of town”) and pays a visit to Midtown Plaza and the Clock of Nations:
“There were these cylinders that went around, and every hour they were supposed to open and you could see dolls representing different counties inside. It was altogether the dumbest-looking I’ve ever seen.”
…Which Rochesterians might think but wouldn’t be caught dead saying out loud.
Eugene has a more favorable assessment of the South Avenue parking garage:
“The best building in Rochester is this parking garage where the cars park on spiral ramps. The whole thing looks like it’s screwed into the ground. I wondered if they could really make a building like that. When it got full of cars, they could just unscrew it a turn, and expose another level.”
Eugene has lunch at Bob’s Beanery, where he dines on Lake Ontario Chili, an alleged ‘local specialty’, named after its watery consistency (while I was not able to turn up any restaurant by that name, the general trajectory of Eugene’s travels suggests it was inspired by either Nick Tahou’s or The Busy Bee). Finally, he finds himself in the children’s section of Rundel Library: after successfully locating the secret door into the hidden room, he bides his afternoon reading.
Uncle Mel returns from his tour of the vending machine factory in a foul mood, having been forced to sample the various freeze-dried, mix-and-mush micro-wave foods he will be selling; after cheering himself up with a few Greaso-Whammy Burgers, he and Eugene head to a local movie theater for a bizarre low-budget documentary about Professor Ambrose McFwain and his search for the legendary Yobgorgle, a sea monster he believes to be residing in Irondequoit Bay.
Professor McFwain isn’t much of a monster-hunter, and although he claims to have seen Yobgorgle many times over the past decade, something always goes wrong when he tries to photograph or film the monster; the best existing photograph bears a suspicious resemblance to a sunken 1956 Chevy.
Curiosity aroused, the next day Eugene returns to the library, where he looks up Professor McFwain’s published work, and finds that the professor’s Piscean Discovery Institute is headquartered right in Rochester. Eugene attempts to call the Institute, and is directed in turn to the McFwain Foundation, McFwain Institute, Professor Ambrose McFwain and finally the McFwain Toy Company, which also operates as the E. J. Kupeckzky Thought Factory.
Eugene makes an appointment to meet with Professor McFwain at his Water Street headquarters, located in the basement of a Big-and-Tall men’s clothing manufacturer. When Eugene and Uncle Mel arrive, they find the professor surrounded by his stock of unsold Yobgorgle merchandise (“green plastic dolls looking a little like a dragon with a bushy beard and three eyes”); McFwain claims to have made a fortune selling them to finance his next Yobgorgle-hunting expedition. The professor quickly wins over Uncle Mel with a shared love of fast food and a gift of a giant, rhinestone-bedazzled cowboy suit from the factory upstairs; Uncle Mel agrees to allow Eugene to join the expedition as the Professor’s assistant.
Pinkwater piles on the wacky highjinks, as Eugene accompanies the professor to obtain a used car from Colonel Ken Krenwinkle, a local character and supposed “richest man in Rochester”, who fulfills his aspiration to become a used-car salesman by holding one-day-a-year sales for ridiculously low prices with ridiculous conditions attached (Professor McFwain buys a car for $3.00 with the stipulation that he must wear a chicken suit at all times while driving it).
I quibbled with the idea of someone as wacky as Col. Krenwinkle being Rochester’s leading citizen (it’s called Smugtown not for nothing), but when the Yobgorgle expedition pays a visit to the Colonel’s mansion and finds it filled with various cars and heavy machinery mounted like hunting trophies, it kind of seems like the Colonel is an slightly unhinged version of George Eastman. So, good job on your research, Daniel Pinkwater!
After a detour to the Monroe County Fairgrounds in Henrietta (so they can observe the Colonel hunt and bag a 1969 Austin America “in the wild”), the Colonel agrees to join the expedition.
The Professor gathers his crew the following evening to depart, but the ‘research vessel” immediately sinks. The Colonel comes to the rescue by providing his Yacht, La Forza Materiale, for the expedition.
Monster-hunting consists mainly of sailing out into the middle of the lake and waiting in perfect silence. Eugene is dozing off when he spots something. He wonders if he hallucinating when the shape that drifts into view takes the form of a gigantic pink pig. Even the professor is taken aback by the discovery:
“I confess, I am as amazed as you are. I had no idea that Yobgorgle was so… so… porciform.”
Yobgorgle turns out to be a giant pig-shaped submarine, piloted by a captain under a Flying Dutchman-like curse. In the frenzied conclusion, the expedition is kidnapped by the captain of the Flying Piggie, work out a way to cheat the curse so the captain can return to land and send the giant pig-shaped submarine hydroplaning at 200 miles an hour onto the beach at Charlotte.
In the end Uncle Mel decides to take a job with Col. Krenwinkle, while the now curse-free ship’s captain opens a drive-in restaurant inside the giant pig. Professor McFwain goes on to mount an expedition to find a new monster, while Eugene is left to contemplate a future career as a monster-hunter.
Sign It Was Written In 1979 Department: Don’t book your Yobgorgle-themed tour of Rochester just yet; most of the landmarks Eugene visits are sadly long gone.
Midtown Plaza: Demolished 2008, although the Clock of Nations has received a permanent temporary home at the airport.
Rundel Library Secret Children’s Room: The children’s section moved to fancier digs across the street in the Bausch & Lomb building in the late 1990s, although supposedly a new secret room is included in the new space.
And in the most egregious combination of insult and injury, the South Avenue spiral garage mysteriously collapsed in 2006.
Meta! Department: One of the books Eugene reads at the library is “a book about a kid who gets involved with an old maniac and a bunch of talking lizards,” which is Pinkwater’s 1976 novel Lizard Music.
Last Word Department: “Either people in Rochester are very polite, or very hard to surprise.”