A Sense of Cycles

by Tobias Carroll

Sam Pink, Early Stuff
11:11 Press 466pp ISBN 9781948687164 $19.95

Sam Pink, The Ice Cream Man & Other Stories
Soft Skull Press 288pp ISBN 9781593765934 $16.95

Can the same writer simultaneously create detailed evocations of workday life along with surreal, bizarre forays into the imagined? Either of these skills on its own would be deserving of renown; taken in tandem, however, they push towards something ineffable and strange. Sam Pink’s fiction documents the quotidian routines of people working jobs they hate while finding unlikely moments of grace along the way. In a review of Pink’s novellas The Garbage Times and White Ibis for The New Republic, Michael Friedrich writes that the two works ‘are about coping with daily struggles and pushing out of complacency.’ The first time I saw Pink read, he went on a long digression about the 1990 Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Lionheart. All of which is to say that Pink can be hauntingly complex when he wants to — but he also understands the value of the gloriously random.

Pink has tended, as of late, to embrace the novella/short novel as format. Besides the aforementioned The Garbage Times and White Ibis, he’s also told memorably concise narratives in Rontel and Witch Piss. Two new books offer a sense of Pink’s approach to short fiction. The Ice Cream Man & Other Stories collects a number of stories written between 2014 and 2019. Early Stuff brings together work from four of Pink’s earlier books, including the gloriously-titled I am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It. Together they provide an excellent look into the evolution of Pink’s storytelling style — and his surreal, deadpan humour.

Early Stuff publisher 11:11 Press dubs it ‘a collection of Sam Pink's early poetry in a single volume.’ While I hesitate to differ with the publisher, many of the works in Early Stuff don’t look terribly different in format or tone from the works in The Ice Cream Man & Other Stories. While some of the pleasures of reading Early Stuff as someone experienced with Pink’s work comes from seeing his style evolve, there are also plenty of qualities that were there from the outset.

In some of the works in Early Stuff, there’s a more clear-cut sense of the absurd. Reading it brought back memories of a 2013 Kathleen Rooney essay on the aesthetics of comedy writer Jack Handy’s Deep Thoughts. ‘I realized that the conversationality, concise humor, ludicrous situations and faux-sincere profundity of the “Deep Thoughts” presage rhetorical turns that now appear often in contemporary poetry,’ Rooney wrote. In the earliest collected works in Early Stuff, Pink delivers in ways that line up with this. A sampling of titles include ‘I Love You, You Shithead’, ‘An Incomplete List of the Things I’d Like to be Reincarnated As’, and ‘I Smash My Smile Against Yours’.

Some of the early works in Early Stuff are only a sentence or two long. Others, like the memorably-titled ‘Pubic Hair That Is Hard With Blood’, are more expansive, playing out over numerous short paragraphs, some of which are only a sentence long. (Structurally, this is something that’s run throughout Pink’s work over the years; the man loves a short paragraph.) And there’s a lot of strange levity in these pieces: the narrator of ‘Apartment’ spends his days being repeatedly eaten by a monster; the narrator of ‘DMV Thing’ worries that a woman sitting in the waiting area beside him might begin devouring her child after misreading a sign.

There’s a playfulness to many of these early works, which sometimes comes from the juxtaposition of a deadpan title with an absurd situation and sometimes comes from the freedom with which Pink approaches these narratives, slices of life, and aphorisms. But there’s also a worrying tension that runs through the book’s first half or so as well — one that suggests a penchant for self-destruction and suicidal ideation. ‘Culture Is Stupid’ concludes with an unsettling pair of lines: ‘I am 24./ Living another 50 years seems impossible.’ It’s immediately followed by ‘Resolution’, narrated by someone pondering a death by suicide which would involve a lot of confetti. There’s the same sense of absurdity present here that can be found in some of the less weighty pieces, but they have a greater impact. Here, it doesn’t seem like we’re encountering weirdness for the sake of weirdness; instead, this feels like weirdness as a coping mechanism.

By the second half of ‘Early Stuff the style on display in Pink’s later work begins to emerge. The narrator of ‘Quit Job’ announces that he’s quitting his warehouse job, then has an awkward conversation about his boots with the person’s he’s just quit in front of. Here, too, is a sense of bleak comedy. ‘And for about eight seconds, the idea of not having a job made me feel like I could do anything I wanted,’ the narrator thinks. ‘There was nothing I wanted.’

The Ice Cream Man & Other Stories offers arguably the most concise summation of Pink’s work as a writer. Its stories are grouped by geography, and largely follow a first-person narrator through a series of frustrating jobs. Or perhaps it’s a series of narrators, all working unfulfilling jobs. The title story, one of several set in Florida, follows the narrator as he takes a job driving an ice cream truck. It’s told largely through a series of single-sentence paragraphs, which give the story some of the urgency of pulp crime fiction. Here, though, there are no gumshoes or femme fatales to be found — just someone looking to make some money and the unpleasant discovery they make about the terms and conditions of their employment.

A very different moment of realisation comes in ‘Blue Victoria’, as the narrator looks back on his friendship with a trio of people: Chris, Victoria, and Robby. Time passes; eventually, Robby contacts the narrator with alarming news about Chris and Victoria. The stark tone of Pink’s prose makes its turn into a much more unsettling place that much more shocking. Pink isn’t a writer who offers a sense of foreboding — though it might be as accurate to say that Pink’s concise prose offers a constant state of foreboding. Here, he’s writing about how little many of us know the people around us — though there’s also a sense of how horrific deeds can take place in plain sight, and of the systems that further them along.

And then there’s ‘The Stag’, which is situated late in the book and which offers a slightly more pastoral vision of the world. ‘I live in an apartment on the outskirts of a small town,’ the story begins. ‘It’s by a large field of lavender, which has just begun to die.’ It’s a precise and evocative way to usher the reader into this particular story. And, overall, it reads much like Pink’s other stories: the narrator is working on the catering staff of a large wedding, and the bulk of the story focuses on his interactions with his co-workers and his observations of the wedding itself.

There’s a sense of cycles here: the cycles found within families, the cycles found within workplaces, and — as with the early mention of dying lavender — the cycles of nature and life. Eventually, the narrator finds himself back out in the greater landscape, and has an unexpected encounter with nature. Pink understands well that the transcendent and the shocking are often in close proximity. It’s not the final story in the collection — that place is reserved for a return to the setting of ‘Blue Victoria’ — but it does represent a simultaneous expansion and contraction of Pink’s fiction. Then again, much of Pink’s work is about the awareness — if not the embrace — of change. And if the end of Pink’s ‘The Stag’ signifies what it might, it suggests bold things are on the horizon for this ever unpredictable writer.