When you are reading an obviously autobiographical book and the author hits you with a passage about becoming a giant and using his cat as a shotgun to destroy a city, you have two options: you can stop reading immediately or take a deep breath and allow the writer to take you places you’ve never been before while fully aware that the person at the wheel may or may not be in full control of the chaos ahead…or their sanity. If the name on the cover of that book is Sam Pink, however, everything changes. The first thing that’s different is that you’re surprised at the image he presented you with, but said image fits right into the shifting, depressing, hilarious, bizarre mythos of Sam Pink. The second thing is that you were probably craving the weirdness, and you don’t even consider stopping because you know that there’s much more madness ahead, and it will be the kind of beautiful, relatable, entertaining madness you’ve come to expect from him.
The Garbage Times/White Ibis is not only Pink’s latest; it might just be Pink’s best so far. The book, which is really two books and thus comes with two covers (you have to flip it to read the second book), kicks off in the bars and freezing alleys of that dirty, rough Chicago that Pink has written about so much (I consider Witch Piss a quintessential novel for those wanting to understand the city). Life is hard in the cold, mean streets and bars of Chicago but there seem to be better times ahead. After a time on those streets and the dirty deeds the author/character is forced to perform to make a living, the narrative moves to Florida (the second novella), where Pink encounters plenty of fauna, goes to family gatherings, and is more or less forced to paint lizards for a birthday and then repeat the magic for a group of Girl Scouts. The result of these two narratives is a book that reads like a single tale of two very different cities and the people who make each unique as well as the couple, and the cat, that brings them together in a single storyline.
There are no easy descriptions when it comes to talking about Pink’s work. Unique comes to mind, but it fails to convey the ease with which he tackles deep themes like depression and self-loathing. Humorous also applies, but it doesn’t do justice to the way the author manages to bring readers into his life effortlessly and then shares with them devastating truths, both personal and universal. Likewise, words like entertaining, honest, wild, and self-aware all do the trick, but fall short because, even if used together, leave out some crucial element of Pink’s prose. The solution to this conundrum is easy: pull out a tired phrase and, as convincingly as possible, say to readers everywhere “This is special, and the only way to truly get a sense for what’s going in in this book is to read it.”
The Garbage Times/White Ibis is classic Pink in the sense that space, sentence structure, and even the humor are all there, but it also feels like a new step for the author. In these two novellas, Pink opens up as much as he has done in the past, but he seems more worried about things narrative arc and exploring briefly the meaning behind everyday things. He has always been a strange hybrid, part philosopher and part comedian with a thing for mental health, but he is now also emerging as an outstanding chronicler of not only himself as those around him but also of the connective tissue between all things and behaviors.
If none of that appeals to you, this is still a recommended read simply because it’s a lot of fun to read. Take, for example, the aforementioned cat shotgun scene:
The time is somewhere between 5 and 6 a.m.—where every emotion happens at once—and everything makes sense—but it’s still all very sad—and something is about to climax—but it doesn’t—instead slowing down to long frames where nothing happens—and the braking train outside sounds like a thousand dogs shrieking—and everything else—and a gigantic version of myself stands up from Lake Michigan, holding Dotty upside down—pumping her tiny ass like a shotgun and shooting it at the city, except the first shot barely comes out and rebounds off a building into my face and Dotty and I fall backwards into the lake, gone forever.
If you have ever wondered how deep simplistic writing can be, then this is a book you should not miss. If you have ever asked yourself if an unabashedly honest view of life wrapped in a thin veil of hilarity could work, then the answer is to go read this right now. More than author, Pink is a one-person movement with a distinctive style, and this book adds yet another outstanding entry to a catalog that is already a must for anyone trying to get a real sense of what contemporary literature is all about.
The Garbage Times/White Ibis
by Sam Pink
Soft Skull Press; 272 p.