Sam Pink, The Garbage Times / White Ibis, Soft Skull Press, 2018

Reviewed by Sean Kilpatrick

[Review Guidelines]


Sam Pink's spring release is a double feature. The Garbage Times, precursor to White Ibis, stokes one tension that the following novella releases, temporarily, before converging hells. The narrator of The Garbage Times (an accurate, iconic title for our zeitgeist) lives on the edge of poverty, in a state of refactored glee often necessary for survival. Refactoring is a rhetorical technique Gordon Lish cultivated wherein each repetition of a sentence reveals something new in its emphasis. Tao Lin went concrete deadpan on this method (not that Lish approves of him or most anyone and Pink did not study under and is not associated with Lish) and Noah Cicero gave it philosophical and sociological impact, renaming it the "sentegraph," a portmanteau blend word inspired by Hellraiser's "cenobites." Pink then advanced this enjambment by blending mimetic and diegetic narration into a Pinteresque comedy of menace, if the absurdist understatement was replaced by one of the sharpest phonetic registers in the history of recorded dialogue. The locution is unsurpassed, our Irvine Welsh of the Chicago ghetto, but he's far more cuddly, in the scariest sense of the word. A reality transcript laced with the entire thought process of a minimum wage work grind, Pink's declarative memory should be harvested from his cortex by scientists after he's done enduring any percentage of the life described within these pages. The suggestion of any bellyaching about one's station would undermine the bushido will, the kamikaze cachinnation so brilliantly on display. (Nowadays we could only make another Horatio Alger by reverse engineering everything the man wrote.) Plain facts refactored in succession stir the same pressures they portend to assuage.
     One might venture that there's an important lesson to learn here about tenacity, only because zero overt didacticism is involved. Portraiture held hostage, depicted sayingly, to paraphrase Denis Donoghue (Lish wouldn't like me either), reports and amplifies downtrodden psyches in piecemeal obfuscation. Inside these roving interpretations, congealed into one head, one POV (hence it is art, not populist entertainment, though there is a pitch perfect readability to the prose), interrupting fragments of parataxis form within a larger hypotaxis, if the book could be seen as one long coughing sentence. Just as humor plateaus into potential threat – the awkwardness of violence Trojan horsed inside what feel like very demented self-help aphorisms – an extended subconscious scream plucks itself alive inside the corresponding voices. An added parenthetical halfway through the text is a riff portending to novelize the 2007 kid flick Firehouse Dog, a zany bomb from the Stanford alumni who wrote The Mask and Face Off. The lax storyline of that mess of a movie is goaded by Pink's by now nerve-wracking insistence to self-flagellate with applause. Like a strain of jiu-jitsu capable of pinning the complacent with their own force by simply reiterating what they are, Pink innovates this deadpan alt maneuver, bracketing a blood vortex of malevolence behind each grin. Below the moment, as when a final suction of liquid cracks to the sewers underfoot, sustained laughter, trapped so long in one's throat, echoes back through the pipes. Rats pause in recognition, but people are more than rats because we usually don't swallow our fur; we spit it out. The subliminal message of the narrator's fortified enlightenment either peaked at some point into an inconsolable act, cooling over time as manic Zen consolations about survival, or, instead, will soon explode. The expert tension of The Garbage Times is when, and if, the narrator, divorcing from the voices (the recording device he is a component of) inside his head, will betray the sense of trained bemusement and snap, full rampage, or if he'll be shown to practice a higher form of thought, keeping him, and us, free of a body count. The line of thinking comes from a place of no relatable intent, but is applied to everyday circumstance, ironically enough, such that the feeling is entirely inclusive, welcoming in its impressive endurance, an endurance above and beyond petty complaint. Everything possibly maudlin is at war with all the reasons the world provides to embrace that interpretation and the author takes a mallet to any emo slant, much opposing the typical literary navel gaze. Pink then takes a mallet to all perception in the wake of that exercise (recording everything with concrete alien accuracy) and the result is far from cartoonish. Imagine a cartoon compressed by each individual cell as they flip by, meticulously circumstantiated, deathly realistic until the view becomes detached, and you see the contorted whole, our Ren and Stimpy life.
     White Ibis switches climates, city ghetto to working class Florida. The previous anthropological constrictions are relieved and layered with an onomatopoeic rundown of domestic anesthetization, that routine of the jocular parent imposing their banal deshelling upon anyone daring to be the slightest bit socially aloof, subjecting the perceived pretentions of those few who are genetically less imposing to the duties of their own pretentious insomnias, their babies.
     Pink turns from fabliau to sprung rhythm picaresque alongside the residency of a love life, nearing the necessary relatives. His comically exaggerative assessments, the cajoling both sarcastic and meant, ironic but never smarmy (once even sweet, without sentimentality, while maintaining the hyperbole), self-interrupt somewhere between narration and commentary, a combination, a built-in flipside. To mind the incidentals without scoffing, middle finger raised and lowered accordingly, trapped in the hourglass life fills with excrement, head just surfacing before it goes upside down, this is Pink's swan dive to smash the glass.