I Review Children's Books: The Happy Man and His Dump Truck
Miryam. The Happy Man and His Dump Truck. Illus. Tibor Gergely. Random House First Little Golden Treasures Edition: New York, 2010
Originally published in 1950, The Happy Man and His Dump Truck is an early example of a story that reads one way for adults, and another for children. For children, it’s just a cacophony of animal noises plus whatever you call the opposite of stranger danger. For adults, it's a steady descent into the uncanny valley. Everything about it places it so close to being normal children’s fare, but it misses the mark by just enough to become horrifying in it’s weird wrongness.
On its face, the plot follows the “Happy Man” as he drives around in his dump truck greeting people and offering pleasure rides to livestock because, as readers of The Scold learned from The Little Blue Truck, the only beings that enjoy a nice drive in the country more than old married couples are miscellaneous farm animals. This is admittedly a bit thin as a plot, but for context note that my baby’s favorite book this week is literally just a collection of photos of babies overlaid with phrases like “Uh-Oh!” and “Clap hands, Baby!”. By comparison, the plotting in The Happy Man and His Dump Truck twists and turns like Daphne du Maurier wrote it.
Reading it feels like paging through the storyboard for a lost du Maurier film treatment, too. The Happy Man is just a bit too happy; his preferred greeting--he raises and lowers the dump truck every time he sees a “friend”--is frankly bizarre (You say “happy,” I say “a public menace”); and he clearly has no respect for either private property or physical safety. When he comes across a random pig, he offers the pig a ride in his dump truck. Reader, you know as well as I do that there is only one reason a happy man offers a wandering pig a “ride”, and it is because he just found 300 pounds of free bacon. Alarm bells may not be ringing for the pig, but they will be for you.
The Happy Man, who by all indications is an insatiable monster as well as a thief, cons the pig into introducing him to even more farm animals, who climb into the TRUCK OF DOOM with the pig. “The man closed the tailgate, so they could not escape and would not fall out,” the book tells you. “They are all my friends,” thinks the Happy Man, who is clearly the sort of person who eats his friends. Then he drives around with all the animals in the dump truck, periodically tipping the dumper so that the animals tumble into a heap of bruises and broken legs against the tailgate. The text says “The animals were all so happy,” but it’s pretty clear that the animals cannot at this point be trusted to report their own emotional state because 1. Most of them are probably suffering from concussive brain injury and 2. They may well have decided to comply with the Happy Man in order to avoid further abuse at his hands. After a couple of rounds of “Oh, you’re not happy yet? Time to TIP THE DUMPER AGAIN,” you, too, would be insisting that you were VERY, VERY HAPPY.
The final pages of the book seem to suggest a happy ending, but, then, the classic psychological dilemma of the gothic heroine is to be left with two possible explanations for everything that has happened to her: either she is paranoid, delusional, and incapable of trusting her own intuition, OR she is married to a cold blooded murderer who is actively gaslighting her in the worst way possible. Likewise, either the Happy Man returned all the animals to their farm, unharmed and thrilled to have had an excursion--in which case you are ridiculously paranoid, looking for gothic horror where there is only a harmless children’s book about farmyard animals OR you are reading your child a story about a NIGHTMARE MONSTER who would kidnap and torture adorable pigs, roosters, and ducks just for kicks, without so much as an intent to steal and eat them. In the final, cryptic scenes the Happy Man drives away singing his cheerful blood-chilling song, the truck disappearing in the distance, a lone rabbit watching from its hiding place in the grass.
Representation: All of the humans are able-bodied white men; the Happy Man has a fat belly, but he’s also probably a cruel and terrifying animal-napper, so on top of everything else, way to embrace fat hate, “Miryam”. Of the animals, the pig is referred to as “he”; the rooster and hen are gendered by virtue of being a rooster and a hen, and the rest of the animals are never assigned a gender. Everyone is able-bodied, or at least, everyone is able bodied before they are tumbled about in the back of a dump truck with nary a protective restraint in sight.
Should you buy it: You should buy it, and then make sure that whenever one of your friends offers to read to your child they read The Happy Man and his Dump Truck. Your child will enjoy the animal noises, and you will enjoy watching your friend struggle not to say what the fuck? in front of your child.