The Things with Real Teeth and Power: Two Novellas from Sam Pink

IN HIS FASCINATING linked novellas The Garbage Times and White Ibis, Sam Pink exposes the absurdity hidden just below the surface of everyday life. In The Garbage Times, this takes the form of a deep dive into society’s underbelly to reveal the grime most people turn away from when walking down the street: homeless people defecating, rats scurrying, pigeons eating dirty food, drug addicts having illogical conversations. It is all there, and Pink won’t allow the reader to ignore it.

The Garbage Times is an homage to the randomness of life, the inevitability of shit, scum, and death, and the beauty that glimmers amid the filth. The story’s unnamed narrator is a man who deals with all manner of absurd behavior as he loads garbage, plunges toilets and sinks, and works as a bouncer at a bar. Despite the character’s peculiarities, readers will likely find his barrage of thoughts, explosive emotions, fantasies of violence, and bursts of tenderness easy to relate to. Most of us, Pink implies, are more like this “crazy” garbage man than we would like to admit as we “plunge” our way through life trying to get rid of the shit — pun intended.

The narrator is diligent in his job. Surrounded by rats and pigeons, he takes on each clog with vigor and an absence of fear or disgust, and this endless drive to clean up the messes of others — shit seems to be everywhere — takes on a hilarious cast. Throughout, Pink’s profanity-laced prose feels fitting, as it places the reader deep in the minds of characters choking on the so-called civilized world’s muck.

In counterbalance to the crassness and moments of violence that punctuate The Garbage Times, Pink’s narrator shows a deep, humanizing love and respect for women and animals. For example, when he returns home to his cat Rontel, one of his main companions, he thinks,

Inside my apartment, Rontel was lying on the stove — his eyes half closed, wagging his tail.

He went to meow but didn’t make a sound.

He stretched, knocking a metal burner off the stove.

“Come here, my little shithead,” I said.

I picked him up and kissed his head four times real quick.

In a really deep and gravelly voice, I said, “Rontel, you a handsome baby!”

He was blinking a lot and licking his snoot, staring up at the ceiling.

Sun lit my room.

Pink’s fascination with animals continues in White Ibis, in which there is a sad, profound moment where the narrator sympathizes with a lizard trying to defend itself against the housecat Dotty, who is slowly killing it by batting it around:

This lizard was for real.

It looked up at her, gill things puffed out, like “All right, all right yeah, big tough guy, let’s have it. [wipes nose] You wanna pick on someone? Yeah ok, all right, pick on me, tough guy, go ahead and — ” but Dotty just mangled it some more.

She left it broken and mostly dead, on its back, barely breathing.

Since the lizard is suffering, the narrator’s girlfriend pressures him to kill it, and he does:

I smashed the lizard’s head with the heel of my boot. Its guts came out its side. Fuck. You tried. You tried. I get it. Sometimes you just gotta pick a place and say, “Right here. Here’s where it happens. Right here.” Gills out, boss, gills out. R.I.P.

The power, humor, sadness, and tenderness in Pink’s writing is haunting when he is at his best, as in this observation of a turtle at a laundromat aquarium in The Garbage Times:

Short bookcases with aquariums on them — turtles swimming in shallow water.

I watched this one turtle trying to swim through the aquarium wall as I dumped a garbage bag of my clothing into a washer.

The turtle made the same sideways swimming motion with both arms.

The same tap of the head against the glass.

Same tiny wave of water bouncing off the glass and coming backwards.

Each time.

Fucking shit.

This is the beauty of Pink’s work — he shows the simple devastations of containment, of beings (in this case animals) living without dignity but still striving toward hope, over and over again, as we all do, wanting things to come out all right. This is the heart of his message, the essence of his book: we will never stop trying to keep moving no matter how confined we are. No matter how random life is, we press on toward something intangible in the distance with only the will to live fueling us.

In this quest for life and dignity is an equally powerful desire to succumb to death. Its inevitability curls underneath each page, hides in each scene. Morbid readers will really dig this book. As will lovers of the absurd, though the magic of Pink is that he turns the absurd to a purpose. The novellas are hilarious and unabashedly honest in showing how bizarre life is, how unpredictable people are, and yet how each person craves love, dignity, freedom — the fundamental needs we all share. In its surreality and sadness, The Garbage Times leaves readers with an impression of characters living in the grime of the world, amid constant violence and despair, yet striving to rise above and make sense of it all.

Pink is a master of dialogue. He nails slang and the odd way people often misuse or mispronounce words, particularly folks who have been traumatized in some way or just talk funny. For example, in The Garbage Times, the narrator frequents a bar where he has a strange affection for the female bartender, who has a bizarre accent that he imitates good-naturedly:

“Stahhp! Quit maykin me laugh! Oh hey, watch [Regular] over dair. He’s doing the hair ting.”

[Regular] was a Vietnam vet who came in every day

[…]

he was whipping his long hair around, and hiking his pants over his huge belly, sitting at the corner of the bar with a group of people behind him.

His face was totally red and he was talking to himself.

The look on his face was so evil.

I laughed.

The novellas, as eccentric as they are, are grounded in scenes with a powerful sense of authority. And some of Pink’s lines are pure gold, encapsulating some universal truth or humorous insight, or both: “And all the animals headed back to their corners, to wait for tomorrow. Hiding from the things with real teeth and power.”

At the same time, Pink can get carried away. There are moments of overindulgence and repetition where the narrator will pick up a thought and run with it too long. But Pink’s audacity in taking risks is admirable. His style is purposefully messy — he is having fun writing and playing with how obsessive the brain can be. He thrills in breaking convention.

The conversational tone only adds to the humor of these novellas. Despite its odd formatting, the book becomes very readable once the reader adapts to its strange, galloping style. Pink takes the reader on an adventure, and there is a mysterious momentum at work in the voice-driven narrative, a Murakami-like invisible hand that guides these characters with a purpose to press on and preserve dignity, preserve authenticity, through a seemingly sordid, artificial world.

In White Ibis, the unnamed narrator admires the strange, titular bird that walks to and fro at the end of his driveway in Florida, the way it shoots judgmental glances and avoids direct contact with anyone or anything. It serves as a symbol for the narrator’s desire to be free of domestication, of playing along, but he’s torn because he wants to keep his girlfriend and maintain some sense of normalcy. So, while he struggles to get a job, attends parties, and carries on normal conversations, the pull of the white ibis strutting around and doing its own thing perpetually calls to him. When he sees it, he thinks, “I really wanted the white ibis to like me and to be my friend. And to its credit, it — seemingly — did not. Ok. Well. Hell, I understood.”

In pondering the nature of the ibis and all creatures that fight for survival, he articulates the theme that links the two novellas beautifully:

The peacock and other weird non-bad-ass birds like the white ibis seemed hilarious, given evolution.

I imagined all creatures at the beginning of time, right before it all begins, in private, devising their offenses/defenses and then coming out into an open field and revealing them.

Into the field of existence with means to survive.

Like hey, check this out, got a big horn on my face!

In the hands of a lesser writer, the narrator would rebel against being in a relationship and the story would implode with bickering. Instead, the young couple in White Ibis seems genuinely happy and in sync with one another, and she accepts his social anxiety as his to deal with.

White Ibis ends on a tender note. A Girl Scout troop holds a sleepover at the couple’s home, and while the narrator at first resists he ultimately enjoys the girls and their exuberance. He empathizes with their fears about being ugly as he is pressured into drawing their portraits (he is known as “the artist”), and as a result finds unexpected meaning and beauty in connection with other alienated humans.

Reading Sam Pink is an unpredictable experience. He hits varied tones and moods, and readers never know where he is taking them next. He’s been labeled “experimental,” but these novellas are just good fiction. He sucks readers in and makes them see the world as his narrators do. His stories are unique and true and impossible to put down — what more could anyone want?

¤

Taylor Larsen is the author of the novel Stranger, Father, Beloved (Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster, 2016). She teaches fiction writing for Catapult and the Sackett Street Writers Workshop and is co-editor of the literary website The Negatives.

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