A few years ago, I saw Sam Pink read in Chicago. All I knew about him at the time was that one of his books bore a truly magnificent title: namely, I Am Going to Clone Myself Then Kill the Clone and Eat It. His reading that evening involved the video sleeve for the mid-90s Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle Lionheart, and involved a quick digression about the plot of Van Damme’s earlier Bloodsport. That certainly got my attention: as someone who came of age watching Van Damme’s filmography, I could relate. There are a lot of writers who create bang-up literary fiction; there are far fewer who could also talk about action films wherein the hero does at least one split over the course of ninety minutes, and where the plot takes pains to explain said hero’s Belgian accent.
(This review, for what it’s worth, isn’t about Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s about Sam Pink. But there’s a point I’m trying to make in here; stick with me for just a little bit longer.)
That’s the impressive thing (or one of the impressive things) about reading Sam Pink’s fiction: he has a sense of literary history, but he’s also more than willing to dig deeply into certain bits of ephemera. The structure of the short novel Rontel is classic: it follows its narrator over the course of just over a day as he walks through Chicago. It’s an archetypal setup, but his actual actions are lower-key: quarreling with his girlfriend’s roommate, playing video games with his brother, and watching a musician perform on the subway. There’s a degree of specificity to these routines. In one passage, the narrator and his brother play “a hockey videogame from 1997,” which reveals more than a little about their personalities, ages, and circumstances.
Pink mostly pulls off something that rarely works for me in fiction: phonetic dialogue. There are any number of ways in which this approach can stumble: most often, the way dialogue is transmitted reads incorrectly, the approximation of accents or dialects coming off as fundamentally incorrect. Get this right and you still run the risk of reducing characters to stereotypes. What Pink achieves in most of his dialogue here is something else: our tendency to fall into a kind of pattern, a daily (or hourly) call-and-response; catchphrases of which we’re barely aware. The long passage describing the video game that they play breaks down into a series of repeated phrases and gestures — the literary equivalent of Michel Gondry’s video for “The Hardest Button to Button.”
The narrator notes, as he converses with his girlfriend, that:
…we weren’t having a conversation.
She was just referencing things she bought or wanted to buy.
All of which suggests a lack of self-awareness on his part: that, for all of the bitterness that seeps into his narration, he’s equally complicit in his use of automatic language. Throughout Rontel, details of the narrator’s life emerge: the novel is set on the last day of his job, though he seems to have left it on relatively good terms. We know that he has a girlfriend, but little else — most of the characters in the book are unnamed. The narrator’s fondest feelings seem to be for Rontel, the cat who gives the book its title. And he is not fond of himself:
She walked around looking at clothes and I walked around feeling like I wanted to hit my head against something and hurt myself.
The suspense in Rontel comes from moments like these, when the narrator’s self-loathing can’t be sublimated by distancing himself from the world or the comforts of routine. And, make no mistake, that self-loathing is present from very early on in the book. As he returns home, the narrator discovers a microwave left near his building’s dumpster:
There was a handwritten note on a ripped piece of paper taped to the microwave.
The note read, “I still work!”
I still work — I thought.
I still work, motherfucker.
Which one of you motherfuckers thought I stopped working.
It’s a rare book in which the narrator finds himself identifying with an appliance. But it’s also telling that the microwave meets a decidedly nonworking fate by novel’s end at the hands of the narrator and his brother. Pink’s novel is about a lot of things: city life, disillusionment, language, and unexpected bonds. Some of them could be considered archetypal — the “protagonist walking through a city” structure is used again and again for a reason — while other pieces feel decidedly of the current era. Rontel comes at you in unexpected ways, revealing certain intimate details and leaving other areas of specificity off-limits. It’s from that dichotomy that it draws power — and it’s through its narrator, aloof and wounded, overly aware and in denial, that it accumulates its humor and its heart.