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War Writ Small: Of Pushcarts And Peashooters

Dec 19, 2012
Originally published on January 31, 2013 7:55 pm

Adam Mansbach is the author of the forthcoming novel Rage is Back.

Stealing my 9-year-old nephew's copy of The Pushcart War by Jean Merrill was the best thing I did last summer. I was his age the first time I read it, and twice his age the last time I went back to it. I'm twice that old again now, but as soon as I dove into this intimate, majestic tale of war writ small — of a battle between the pushcart peddlers and the truckers of New York City — I realized how timeless, and how deeply a part of me, the story was.

Before long, I was tearing up as I anticipated events to come — not so much the major plot points as the masterful asides and grace notes that make the story so rich. I finished that same evening — a feat my nephew found stunning — and I haven't stopped thinking about the book since.

The Pushcart War is presented as a history of a conflict that has not yet taken place; in each edition of the book, the date on which the hostilities commenced is nudged forward. I remember the power of that effect vividly from my first reading; it felt like standing with one foot in the past and one in the future, and it was strange and wonderful.

Merrill, who died in August at the age of 89, begins by explaining that most wars are too massive and too complicated to be understood, and that we cannot prevent what we fail to comprehend — true when she wrote it, nearly 50 years ago, and undiminished since. But the Pushcart War, she tells us, is different. Its battles were confined to the streets of one city, and the weapons were simple enough to be understood by a 6-year-old. It was a war in microcosm, but there were generals and campaigns, truces and casualties. At stake were the streets themselves, and thus the future of the city.

At the heart of the conflict lie two opposing models of business, and of thought: The trucking companies believe bigger is better, that growth means progress, and that might is right. They want to eliminate all other vehicles, and their first intended victims are the pushcart peddlers — small businesses beholden to a very different philosophy.

Their customer service is personal, their territories well-defined; they perform hidden services fundamental to the function of the city. They are, in today's parlance, "sustainable." But the pushcarts are no pushovers. When their livelihoods and reputations are threatened, they take the fight to the enemy, with a peashooter offensive that leaves the trucks deflated. Literally.

There is a familiar old-world charm to peddlers like Morris the Florist and Harry the Hot Dog, but there are no ingenues here. We know whom to root for, but Merrill's war is wrought in shades of gray. Battles are won in the court of public opinion, as often as on the streets. Pushcart king Maxie Hammerman is as savvy a strategist as his opponents, the trucking magnates, and their ally, the mayor. Both sides know how to cultivate powerful friends and the importance of manipulating the media.

Merrill's story, full of unexpected reversals and understated witticisms, feels exceptionally modern. And by the end — after the two sides have hammered out a peaceful and deeply reasonable compromise — one can only hope that we'll catch up to Merrill's future one day.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by the team at NPR Books.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Stephen King once wrote that if you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. Most writers try to follow that advice. And in our series You Must Read This, we ask authors to tell us about the books they loved to read.

Adam Mansbach is the author of a book about parents' frustrations in getting their kids to sleep. We can't say the full title on the radio, but it was a bestseller and you may have heard of it. Well, today, he is recommending a book that he loved as a child.

ADAM MANSBACH: Last summer I stole something from a kid, and I felt pretty good about it. The thing was a copy of "The Pushcart War" by Jean Merrill, and the kid was my 9-year-old nephew. I was his age the first time I read the book, and I'm four times his age now. But I still love it just as much. Merrill begins by explaining that most wars are massive, too big and too complicated to understand. But the pushcart war is different.

On one side are the three biggest trucking companies in the city. They're run by a trio of tough, cigar-chomping businessmen. And they've got the mayor in their pocket. On the other side of the conflict are a motley collection of pushcart peddlers. They're old school and old world. There's Morris the Florist, Harry the Hotdog.

When the trucks threaten to wipe them out, they take the fighting to the streets. Their weapon of choice: Pea shooters laced with pins. They take aim at the truck tires and soon dead trucks litter every street in the city. "The Pushcart War" is a book about conflict, but it's hilarious. It's full of reversals and understated witticisms, brilliant strategies that pay off in unexpected ways. And it ends the way you wish all wars ended: with a deeply reasonable compromise that all sides can live with.

CORNISH: That was Adam Mansbach. His recommendation is called "The Pushcart War." And his own new book is called "Rage is Back." To comment on this essay at our website, go to nprbooks.org. You can also follow NPR Books on Facebook and Twitter. That's @nprbooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.