The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip
is that rarity, a fable that appeals equally to literate adults and id-crazed kids. Its author, George Saunders, is a Thomas Pynchon-approved, three-time O. Henry Award-winning surrealist writer; its artist, Lane Smith, is the Caldecott-honored illustrator of The Stinky Cheese Man
and film designer of James and the Giant Peach
. Nothing could evoke Saunders's simple yet extravagant story better than Smith's strange, painterly depictions of the seaside town of Frip, a place of ornery eccentrics and oddball animals. Smith combines some of the virtues of George Grosz
, Dr. Seuss, and the Japanese prints called Ukiyo-e
("pictures of the floating world").
Gappers are baseball-sized, burr-shaped orange creatures with a compulsion to creep up out of the sea and fasten themselves to goats, whom they love. "When a gapper gets near a goat it gives off a continual high-pitched happy shriek of pleasure that makes it impossible for the goat to sleep, and the goats get skinny and stop giving milk," writes Saunders. Since Frip survives by selling goat milk, the children must brush gappers off the herd eight times daily and dump them into the ocean. You simply must see Smith's picture of Capable, the book's plucky heroine, emptying her gapper-sack from a precarious cliff picturesquely menaced by subtly colored waves. You'll be torn between lingering over the gorgeous artwork and flipping the page to see how Capable will ever cope with the gapper invasion of Frip, her obdurately past-obsessed widower papa, and her dumb, mean neighbors (two snooty, boy-obsessed girls and a family of singers who are harder on the ears than a keening gapper attached to the goat of its dreams). This is a slim tale, but unquestionably one quite in keeping with Saunders's prizewinning books. The title story of Pastoralia, for instance, is also a fable involving class struggle and people who get snooty about the difficulties of working with goats.
The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip is a grownups' book, a kids' book, an art book, and a cause for countless happy shrieks of pleasure. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Saunders's (Pastoralia) idiosyncratic voice makes an almost perfect accompaniment to children's book illustrator Smith's (The Stinky Cheese Man) heightened characterizations and slightly surreal backdrops in this unconventional fairy tale for grownups. Saunders describes the setting, the town of Frip, as "three leaning shacks by the sea," which Smith represents as oblong two-story towers in brick red, ocean blue and mint green situated on irregular plots of land with sinewy trees against a yellow sky that suggest a Daliesque eerieness. The 1,500 gappers, spiky little creatures with multiple eyes, feed on the goats that graze the shacks' backyards; by habit, they split into three groups to attack all three properties at once. One day, the gappers decide that henceforth they will concentrate all their efforts on the goats at only one house, the one closest to the seaAinhabited by a girl, Capable, and her grieving, widowed father. Soon, the two unafflicted families begin to tell themselves that they are superior to Capable and her father ("Not that we're saying we're better than you, necessarily, it's just that, since gappers are bad, and since you and you alone now have them, it only stands to reason that you are not, perhaps, quite as good as us"). Of course it's only a matter of time until everybody's luck changes. The Saunders-Smith collaboration is inspired. Smith adds witty touches throughout, and Saunders's dialogue features uncannily amusing deadpan repetitions and platitudinous self-exculpations. Saunders is much too hip to bring this fable to an edifying ending, but things do conclude as happily as is possible in the morally challenged, circumscribed world of Frip.