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|Topher Payne: Where the Wild Things Are|
|Written by Topher Payne|
|Friday, 30 September 2011 00:00|
I was a prissy little fat kid in a small Mississippi town, whose only defense against the hostility of my peers was a premature flair with cutting remarks. Consequently, I spent a good portion of my childhood learning to embrace the pleasure of my own company.
This is how I ended up spending entire summers at the county library, curled up in the stacks, reading books not intended for children. The children’s section was of no interest to me. Even at age nine, the precocious adventures of Ramona Quimby felt cloying and contrived, and the Narnia series seemed ripped off from stories I’d already heard in Sunday School.
When I wasn’t clear on what exactly was happening in a book, I would cross-reference in the World Book Encyclopedia, which led to an inconsistent but shockingly detailed knowledge base on subjects like menstruation, spousal abuse, and thanks to “Flowers in the Attic,” arsenic and incest.
But, much to my surprise, a monster drew me in. He was bull-like creature, catching a little shuteye under a red palm tree. Despite my disdain of children’s literature, I occasionally picked up a copy with interesting illustrations, and this intrigued me. The dark, lightly grotesque images didn’t fit my image of kid lit.
So I sat down with the book, and by the end I’d reached an epiphany: I am Max. I desperately need wolf pajamas. I belong Where the Wild Things Are. This Maurice Sendak person had been thoughtful enough to write a book exclusively for me.
It was completely within my worldview that an author would take the time to do that. I was just so relieved I’d managed to find the book, since no one had bothered to tell me he’d done it, which was also in keeping with my worldview because people were always keeping me out of the loop on important discussions.
Max isn’t a dumb kid, with the broad-strokes emotions one normally encounters in children’s books. Max feels real rage, frustration, and he just wants to break out of those circumstances.
These were feelings I couldn’t begin to articulate, no matter how many trips I took to the encyclopedia. In the Land of Wild Things, Max earns respect because he shows no fear. He stares into all their yellow eyes without blinking once, because the unknown doesn’t frighten him nearly as much as the world that confines him.
Maurice Sendak was living a deeply closeted life when he wrote the book in 1963, quietly living with his partner, Eugene Glynn. It’s not surprising that in those circumstances, he composed a fevered dream of yearning, refusing to adhere to acceptable behavior, and breaking free.
Unlike Dorothy Gale, Max doesn’t spend the whole damn time whining about trying to leave. One can picture Dorothy waking up back in Kansas, convincing herself Oz was all a dream, and living out an unremarkable life on the hog farm.
Dorothy is in idiot. Max takes command of his surroundings, becomes king, and calls for a wild rumpus. The book actually takes a three-page dance break. He’s so full of delight, Sendak doesn’t even bother with words to describe it.
When Max leaves, he’s fundamentally changed. Unlike Dorothy, whose journey teaches her to embrace the familiar, Max has gained knowledge of a world outside his own, and this is what brings him peace. He can be embraced elsewhere, and there are wild rumpuses to be had.
Maurice Sendak and Eugene Glynn were together for 50 years, until Glynn’s death in 2007. They found each other in a time when their love was seen as a mental illness. They had to trust the instinct that told them this was right, and beautiful.
So Sendak composed his strange, beautiful tale of the boy in the wolf pajamas, who was “lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.”
And in illustrating his own work, he reached a moment words could not describe: Misfits in complete reverie, savoring the joy of finding each other, delighting in all that they are. There’s not a trace of shame or uncertainty in those images.
There is only celebration.
There is only pride.
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.
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