AFTER GETTING AN MFA in 2008 I began searching for magazines to send my stories. Uninspired by the typical list of literary journals handed along with my diploma, I turned to the Internet. Online, I found a subversive, wild kind of writing, different than what I’d read in workshops and print magazines. My search led me to Sam Pink’s blog. His writing was weird and loose, hilariously dark and endlessly enjoyable. He had a chapbook, Yum Yum I Can’t Wait to Die, he’d made himself. I wrote to him and asked if I could buy one and he sent me a copy for free with a nice letter. He’s put out six books, including poetry and fiction, and I’ve bought every one.
As recently as five years ago, major publishers weren’t paying much attention to what was happening on the net. HTMLGIANT, founded by Blake Butler, started out as a kind of bulletin board, free of ads or fancy graphics, for the indie lit world. Now HTMLGIANT is a glossy professional blog, and many of its early contributors, folks like Catherine Lacey, Roxane Gay, Justin Taylor, Adam Robinson, and Blake Butler, have book deals with New York publishers or run respected small presses. Pink was a darling of this world, and with Rontel, Pink’s new novel out on Electric Literature (a forbearer in the world of ebooks much like HTMLGIANT), he is likely to rise to such success as well.
Rontel is Pink’s tightest and best book thus far. Perhaps due to good editing or Pink’s maturation as a writer or a combination of both, the book is focused and candid but doesn’t lose any of the original playfulness that made him such a captivating writer when I first came upon his work.
Rontel is narrated by an unnamed, unemployed loser-hero traversing his way through 21st-century Chicago. As in the picaresque novels that precede Rontel, the narrator is a quixotic character telling and observing his life as it happens. The plot goes something like this: the narrator wakes up at his girlfriend’s house, rides the bus to the apartment he shares with his brother and the titular cat, Rontel, looks for a job, plays video games, takes care of a baby in an apartment with a tarantula, talks to homeless people outside a hostage situation, goes to a beekeeping class with his girlfriend, eats pie, waits for the bus. But what makes the book so captivating is the voice: the narrator’s internal monologue (sometimes dialogue) digresses into outlandish observations that don’t feel put-on but rather become a distinct and natural outgrowth of the narrator’s situation and ponderings on existence.
Early in the novel, the narrator and his brother play a hockey video game while fooling around with Rontel, the cat. The narrator is fond of catchy phrases that stick in his head like pop tunes. The announcer on the video game says: “He gives them the business,” after a hard hit on the ice. As they wait for the game to reload, the brother starts head-butting Rontel:
Every time my brother’s head hit Rontel’s head, there was a small hollow sound.
The small hollow sound was both funny and sad.
Rontel just lay there blinking.
If the head-butt was especially hard he’d close his eyes, his ears down all the way.
“He gives him the business,” I said, feeling like what I really wanted was to meet a new woman and develop romantic feelings towards her and have sex with her once, then repeat that many more times with others and call it a life.
No, jump out a high window and call it a life.
Not many writers could pull off a line like, “No, jump out a high window and call it a life” in a scene with someone head-butting a cat. But then most writers aren’t writing scenes where people head-butt cats.
There are lazy comparisons here to Charles Bukowski: the down and out poet wandering the city, studying his own existence, written in a straightforward style. But Pink also has moments of honest, muscular prose, too. Take this passage about a pair of pants that he buys at Salvation Army:
But this pair fit so well.
The way they fit seemed to enclose my genitals and ass so nice as to be sexual.
Caressed in foul delight.
Oh North America, how I want to show you such foul delight!
He may have something in common with Bukowski thematically but Pink is capable of a lyricism akin to Barry Hannah or Denis Johnson. There are also echoes of Richard Brautigan in the short bursts of prose and the hallucinatory jumps in narrative. But to compare Pink to other writers does him a disservice. His voice is unique and powerful. His work is deceptively innocent, harboring deep sadness and humor. Every time I pick up one of his books I’m encouraged that the state of writing is as good now as anytime. Sam Pink is the real deal. Simply one of the best, darkest, funniest, wildest, and touching writers we’ve got.