The Garbage Times and White Ibis, a new pair of related novellas by Sam Pink, crackle with humanistic intimacy. In one scene, the narrator, a writer and painter like Pink himself, gets an email from a teenaged fan:
during all that adolescent frenzy I felt like I could go back and read some of your poems. Sometimes I’d pore over them and feel like my feelings had been validated, and other times I’d read them and plan my suicide. Both were equally important to me.
Pink’s best writing is like that. It wins him fierce and cultish admiration. Part of this, I think, he owes to his chosen subject. For all the attention political theorists and commentators have lately devoted to a definition of the working class, not much fiction chronicles the sheer weirdness of working-class life and labor today.
Pink elevates these mundane concerns to sacred proportions. The Garbage Times drops its protagonist into the lonely urban landscape of Chicago. A barback among rats and regulars, he’s “operating on a level of consciousness not unlike a plant.” White Ibis transports him to the damp suburbs of Tampa Bay, Florida, where he faces chronic unemployment. Now romantically involved with a woman, he navigates new relationships with her family, local Girl Scouts, and tropical birds. He’s often beset by the anxious question, “What are they going to expect me to care about?”
Peripherally associated with the alt-lit movement—best known through the autofiction of Tao Lin and Scott McClanahan—Pink’s fiction is gritty and funny and deeply interior. He shares with Lin a terse and disaffected style. Like McClanahan, his honesty finds him shoehorned into ill-fitting critical comparisons to Charles Bukowski. He has a natural eye for the way things fit together in our world: how objects belong with certain people, how thoughts arrive uninvited in certain social settings. His work is touching, even when it’s a bit neurotic. Together The Garbage Times and White Ibis are about coping with daily struggles and pushing out of complacency.
The Garbage Times abounds with trash. Its title aptly evokes the novella’s feel of both a droll journal of reported events and a broad characterization of a whole era of life. The narrator identifies with the rats and pigeons that “eat garbage off the sidewalk.” Watching the teeming rats in the basement of the bar where he works, he imagines “one super-commander, standing six feet and weighing two hundred pounds who looked exactly like me and who was actually me.”
Working is hard. But if the narrator’s a rat, he’s a survivor. He’s also a keen observer of his kind, and the book brims over with the blasted personalities of Chicago’s low-wage labor force. His relationship with the bartender makes for a comedy of revulsion. She’s forever asking him to get a “weirdo” out of the bar or to “check on” the bathrooms, which are invariably “filled with shit.” (As he notes, “No one ever just checked on something like a bathroom.”) Not working is harder: When he wanders the streets during the off-hours, he encounters characters like “Crazy Keith.” With his “slicked-back gray hair and a boiled-looking face and that ‘Is he going to bite me’ presence,” Keith lures the narrator around the city, dribbling disjointed conspiracy theories and plying him with weed.
The details are funny, but they never come at the characters’ expense (as they do, for example, when Bukowski writes about “subnormals”). Instead, Pink accords them a heightened humanity. The narrator shares affectionate banter with the bartender, a tenderness between workers at an unpleasant job. “Hey, you really like turquoise,” he says when he notices her rings and bracelets. “Don’t touch my hag-hands,” she scolds him. And after a few pages of watching Keith drink orange malt liquor, we learn that his “ol lady” is in the hospital, dying of pancreatic cancer. In both cases, a deeper yearning lurks beneath the surface.
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