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Spirit of the Strip Mall

Sam Pink’s disaffected fiction evokes the sheer weirdness of working life.

Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images

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.”

Soft Skull Press, 272 pp., $16.95

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.

When the narrator appears in White Ibis, he occupies a dramatically different wilderness. Whereas he begins The Garbage Times alone and talking to himself, at the start of White Ibis he’s in dialogue with a woman he calls “my girl.” They’re on their way to Tampa—the “other side of a sunlit portal”—where her parents live. Thrust into suburban domesticity, the narrator is wracked with anxiety. Once the scrappy rat, he’s now aligned with the ibis at the end of his driveway: “I really wanted the white ibis to like me and to be my friend,” but “to its credit, it—seemingly—did not” want the same. His defensive posture has been punctured.

Work in Tampa is scarce. The job search becomes an occasion for self-reckoning: “It was a matter of being, objectively, what one might call, you know, sort of unemployable.” This is partly by choice. He considers but then dismisses an exciting opportunity to “dress up in a bagel suit and walk around outside.” He swells but then deflates at an interview for a stock job at Wine Depot and More! when he sees the “stupid fucking sign” with its “cartoon bunch of grapes” and considers “the inventory,” “the asshole customers,” the manager with his “classic manager look/personality.” Part of what’s fun to read here is the narrator’s interior—his running commentary on the ineffable horrors of suburban strip-mall culture. The labor of a liquor store is as depressing as the ephemeral relief customers seek there. There’s a moral value in sympathizing with the person consigned to this grim work. But there’s also sense in opting out—if you can.

​You might take the narrator’s choosiness as a marker of privilege.​ He possesses nearly all the demographic advantages you care to name. But his growing disaffection for low-wage work makes him typical of his generation’s young men. Ultimately, bills plus expenses minus income—what he calls “The Brokening, Part Forever”—are a burden that spurs him to take a risk as a working artist, selling paintings online and by email with fans. It represents an alternative and precarious—if somewhat bourgeois—vision of labor, and a step toward personal maturation.

Accompanying this change is a fuller engagement with his suburban social milieu. At first, his discomfort reduces him to mock-snarking at the men who banter about yachts and sharks (“Beware the man in boating shorts/shoes”). But by and by he allows himself to be coaxed into the fold. He self-consciously paints geckos at a birthday party for his girl’s cousin’s daughter, becoming “Mr. Artist” to scads of pre-teens. This is a true humbling: He grows as an artist only by undermining his aloof pose and embracing others. It’s a welcome reversal of the autofictional trope that valorizes a narrator’s solitary arc toward artistic achievement.

At times, Pink’s relentless interiority is altogether oppressive to read. The same qualities that make his work supremely relatable can also spiral inward toward madness. Lying in bed in Chicago, for example, the narrator gives us a gonzo meditation on the sounds of his apartment building:

I heard someone go, ‘Unnnhh!’ clearing his throat somewhere else in the building.

He was another friend I had who didn’t know he was my friend.

The ‘Unnnhh!’ Guy.

For hours at a time—day and night—he cleared his throat, going, ‘Unnnn . . . unnnnnhh ... unnnnnnnhhhh!’

Like he could never get it right.

Like if just once he got it right, he wouldn’t have to keep doing it. Unnnnnhhhh!

This stuff goes on for another three pages, as though in real time. Frankly, the book contains a lot of it. It’s the pathos of the ordinary taken to an impossible extreme. That’s both the gift and the trouble of Pink’s writing. Sometimes The Garbage Times and White Ibis effervesce with connection and purpose. Other times, they just froth.

In the astonishing scene that closes White Ibis, the narrator’s girl’s cousin informs them that a “Girl Scout sleepover” will be happening at their house, and he will be expected to draw the girls’ portraits. It’s the least glamorous, most banal task imaginable. The narrator also knows that he’s no good at drawing faces and isn’t likely to flatter his subjects. “I would not be to blame for ruining these girls’ lives—that should happen naturally, like with everyone else,” he reasons. But he and the Girl Scouts laugh through it together. After all, he’s not the one in charge. Ruination is inevitable. So you might as well capture the meaning while it lasts.