It took me a while to catch up to Cowboy and Octopus when I first saw it, and I wonder now if I wasn’t initially a little bummed by the absence of mayhem. Suction cups? Six-shooters? Nope. Both characters arrived at the party with such a reputation for orneriness, after all, that their patient good humor with one another struck me as an opportunity wasted.
Because think about it: where else but the ingenuous preserve of picture books could an octopus rewardingly interact with a cowboy? And what a responsibility that must have felt like – and what a gift – to introduce them. Was it the writer in this case (Jon Scieszka) or the illustrator (Lane Smith) who woke up in the middle of the night sweating and throbbing with the possibilities of such an encounter - and did not suddenly snap to his senses in the morning? Did they talk themselves into it? And did they ever try to talk themselves out?
The story is like that – impulsive sometimes, a little awkward, muddled and halting, yet determined to soldier through even the strangest – if least spectacular - misunderstandings. There’s even a knock-knock joke which goes right over the cowboy’s plainspoken head, and there are proudly baked beans which the octopus cannot bring himself to honestly critique, then two Halloween costumes (the tooth fairy, a shark) which the cowboy very honestly can. Seashells, toy animals, iceberg lettuce, and old comic book snippets come pasted into the anecdotes. That broken seesaw – it’s a Tinker Toy! Even the chapter headings – “Beautiful Day,” “Chow Time,” “Help” – look scrap-booked from newsprint abandoned in someone’s garage, so then all of this rooting and sampling and hmmmming - for what?
Look around you. Okay, first pull up the blinds a little. Or maybe get out of the house for a couple hours, drive into town, or sneak a peek over the wall of your cubicle, your hedge, your laptop – yeah, that’s right, now try and consider whether any one of those unfamiliar faces is worth the blindest shot. There but for the randomness of a job, a neighborhood, a dorm room assignment, a Craigslist posting, a playground encounter (oh, that seesaw’s not broken after all), there but for our countless suspicious customs and costumes and accents and cockeyed expressions, we might not be able to see the forest for the friends.