Sam Pink is, to me, by far one of the most exciting, most inspiring novelists currently writing. My favorite book by him has been the novel Person, a Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge or Hunger for the 21st century. But his new novel, Rontel, is just as funny and enjoyable, maybe his best work to date. It’s also his first book to receive a dual release: in print, from Lazy Fascist Press, and as an ebook, published by Electric Literature.
Why do I dig Pink so much? His sense of humor is the most striking thing to me — his sarcasm, playfulness, and hilarious dialogue. His narrators, 20-something white males much like Pink, are usually unemployed or working low-wage jobs, and they usually live in less-than-ideal apartments. Each book is typically composed of comic scenes presumably drawn from life, little everyday incidents and thoughts that seemed memorable or funny to Pink. And humor is nearly constant — the narrators have such a jolly, endearing sense of humor that even the most profoundly negative sentiment is comical. Another recurring thing in Pink’s books are brief encounters with neighbors and people on the streets of Chicago, people whose language and outlook on life are amusing or endearing to an alienated, sarcastic person with low expectations for the future. Here’s an example:
Out front of the apartment building that shares an alley with mine, my friend (?) the maintenance man dragged two giant bags of garbage, sweating.
He said, “Wassap, my frent.”
He looked at both bags of garbage.
“Too metch,” he said. “Too metch garbetch. S’too hot for garbetch I’m taking outsite, my man.”
He was shrugging and smiling too.
I slapped my hands together and said, “Like to get me some of
He laughed, gesturing towards me with the garbage again.
He pretty much always laughed no matter what I said.
My other favorite thing about Pink is the way he embeds a philosophical viewpoint into casual-seeming, fun-to-read writing. Comical scenes from his life are purposely presented with subtle insight embedded. For example, in a scene where the narrator bleakly dries himself with paper towels after a shower because his towel is moldy, the narrator says to himself:
“Yes, I have used paper towels to dry myself off after showering, and I don’t care if I do it again and again — except for the cost of buying the paper towels.”
This is it — I thought, standing in my bathroom naked and dripping, already sweating again.
This is all there is.
Nothing else outside of being here right now, naked and dripping.
No end to the recycling.
Just keep going keep going.
I began to dry myself off.
Sometimes the insight is that we’re doomed, and who cares.
But — and this is the type of sentimental statement you won’t find in Pink’s writing — the lifeliness in Pink’s books — the sense of real human personality, of real frustration, sadness, boredom, humor, and acceptance — is palpable in his work, imbues the experience of reading him with a joy rare in literature. Pink’s books — about a depressed, sarcastic, doomed-feeling person — make me (if not the author and other readers) more excited to live. And it’s very satisfying to be in the hands of an author who is equally dedicated to being funny and to imparting, in a thoroughly non-heavy-handed manner, what little wisdom he can.
In Rontel, the narrator speaks to zany homeless people, attends a beekeeping class with his girlfriend, daydreams about boxing champ James Toney, writes customer reviews for random products at the library, and contemplates his slowly dying pay-as-you-go phone. Along the way he learns nothing, except maybe that existence is inexplicable, unrelenting, inscrutable — a thing that’s there. As Pink puts it:
A series of accidents creating exactly the same thing, resulting in the same sad person, everything connected to time as it happens, without any ability to turn around and stop it even for a second to say “what is happening” because that is happening.
It’s not uplifting — the book doesn’t care to uplift. I thought after finishing that I’d been that narrator — an occasionally delighted, mostly sarcastic, bemused, beaten-down person, clever and loving but irrevocably jaded. I wondered who I want to be.
There’s a haunting moment where Pink analyzes the narrator’s girlfriend, a more sociable, friendlier person than he, and says, twice: “excited and polite people who love everything find and keep each other.” As if to say the narrator is outside of that experience of excitement, of being nice — he often finds himself being rude or sarcastic, being irreverent about life. I have struggled with knowing whether being what you think is honest and aware — of allowing yourself to see life as depressing, stupid, and largely meaningless — if that is finally indulgent or what little we have of truth. I want to believe you should be nice anyway, you should try hard anyway, you must love anyway — I see in Pink’s writing not the reverse of that per se but revelation on a slant — life doesn’t even seem real, but is a thing there — forget it, accept it — it all makes sense, everything happens as it’s supposed to — “Never any errors.”