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Bedtime Stories for These Oh-So PC Times : Books: James Finn Garner tweaks the language police with his reworking of classic tales for the age deficient (translation: kids). And they're selling like thermally boosted flour patties (that's 'hot cakes' to most of us).

August 11, 1994|RUSSELL MILLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Goldilocks is a biologist hoping to hang radio collars on anthropomorphic bears. The Three Little Pigs become porcinistas , vanquishing an imperialist glutton of a wolf. Chicken Little gets tied up in litigation.

And a little book showcasing these tales flies off bookstore shelves faster than Jack could climb an organic beanstalk.

The bits about Goldilocks, pigs and poultry come from "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," a pocket-sized volume by James Finn Garner (Macmillan, 1994). But the part about the book itself is no fairy tale. This summer, shoppers have been snapping up Garner's satire at a rate no publisher would have dared predict.

More jocular than Grimm, Garner presents postmodern, revisionist, tongue-in-cheek takes on 13 children's classics, from a Red Riding Hood confident in her budding sexuality to three co-dependent goats gruff. He tweaks ecologists, feminists, the men's movement and the recovery movement, not to mention real estate developers and lawyers.

"No one's going to stick up for lawyers," Garner says.

Mostly, his stories savage those who try to fix the world by fixing thought and language. He parodies opponents of sexism, ageism and a bunch of other -isms he invents just for fun, strewing his pages with their euphemisms.

Some are all too commonplace: "economically disadvantaged," "patriarchal," "differently abled." Others are wittily over-the-top. A mean witch comes out as "kindness impaired." Hot porridge is "thermally enhanced."

Behind the jokes, Garner says, lurks a real concern.

"It is true that language affects the way we think," he says, "but it's taken a really goofy turn. Changing from retarded to developmentally disabled --has this helped the people who are afflicted? I'd argue probably not."

Garner's takeoffs also take on what he sees as the politicization of childhood.

"I read about a newsletter for kindergarten teachers telling them not to read 'Snow White' or 'Cinderella' because of the sexism involved," he recalls, "and if they did read one, to try to make the children think critically, but also make them feel bad for liking the story." He calls that unfair to children.

"I don't think anyone was ever made into a wife-beater because they heard 'Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,' " he adds.

Garner, 33, describes himself as "5 feet, 8 inches of rippling flab, melanin impoverished." (That means white. Jargon can be catching.)

Raised in a middle-class home outside Detroit, he graduated from the University of Michigan, then moved to Chicago, where he entered a profession that offered credibility beyond class or race. "I'm a writer," he says. "I'm definitely disenfranchised."

Before "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," his major publication was a Christmas story in the Chicago Tribune's Sunday magazine.

In 1989, Garner joined the Theater of the Bizarre, a cabaret comedy troupe. Its sketches included bleak nursery rhymes entitled "Kafka for Kinder" and the "Teamsters Children's Puppet Theatre"--"like a violent version of 'Roseanne,' " he explains, "except with puppets."

The bedtime stories began as readings in the show.

"I worked over these stories to get every little nook and cranny, if there was a joke in there," he says.

*

It took about three months to finish the book, about 30 rejections to find a publisher. Editors liked his work but marketing departments didn't know how to sell it. The happy ending began with an editor at Macmillan.

"He got it on a Monday and by the next week, we had a contract," Garner recalls. "He knew to keep it under 10 bucks, so it's an impulse buy or a gift item."

First printing, in May, was 40,000. By August, more than 200,000 copies were in print.

Christopher Buckley, the satirical novelist whose "Thank You For Smoking" (Random House, 1994) breaches another fashionable taboo, sees "subtle cultural conservatism" in Garner's stories.

"I think the tremendous sales of a book like this show that people are basically fed up with PC," Buckley says.

But Garner insists he's no conservative.

"I've made fun of things I believe in strongly just because I thought it would be funny," he says. Those include U.S. policy in Latin America, theme of his "Three Little Pigs," and the tyranny of fashion, his theme in "Cinderella."

He calls Rush Limbaugh a bully, Dan Quayle a puppet. He even had second thoughts about publishing his "Snow White" parody in Playboy, he says, "but I figured I'll never get in Playboy again, so I decided to give it a shot."

"I'm not against social change; I'm against orthodoxy. It's kind of a litmus test among certain left-wingers that you have to fight for sexual equality and racial equality and social equality and animal rights and nonviolence and everything else, and if you don't adhere to every one of those, you're a morally suspect person," Garner says.

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Some folklore scholars believe Garner's parodies clumsily confuse the excesses of so-called PC language with legitimate attempts to fight stereotyping in children's stories.

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