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.
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.
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