I first heard of Sam Pink and his latest pair of novellas, Garbage Times/White Ibis, in one of Megan Boyle’s vlogs. I added it to my reading list, and then forgot about him until about two weeks ago. In an act of manufactured coincidence, one of our great algorithmic overlords brought Boyle and Pink together again. This time, while pre-ordering her forthcoming Liveblog, Amazon suggested Garbage Times/White Ibis. Apparently, these two are Frequently Bought Together.
The connections between these two authors are likely obvious to one more versed in the contours of Alt Lit, as they were to the algorithms that directed me back to Garbage Times/White Ibis. I’m merely a tourist in this literary milieu. The body of work—bound by some constellation of geography, publishing houses, and social media—has struck me as a grungy forerunner to the ascendance of autofiction. The transgressive efforts of older millennials rendered unemployable by their commitment to art and drugs. Apolitical, apathetic, alienated.
This probably isn’t the fairest summation of such an extensive body of work, but for whatever its worth, Garbage Times/White Ibis feels different than other works I’ve encountered from this scene. Garbage Times captures, in the words of the narrator, “a moment in life on the way to being smeared I guess!” (78) The hard-up narrator finds himself elbow-deep in the filth and refuse of bar patrons, cohabiting a world with vermin of all shapes and sizes. Recently evicted, his new apartment sucks. Nothing works, and everything is backed-up. Violence and destitution serve as the white noise in the backdrop of somewhere Chicago. The narrator is the garbageman, at home with the mold and rats of the literal basement he emerges from in the opening pages of the novella. He teeters between moments of tenderness and mania. And still, he has farther to fall. He is a man who refuses to lose his manners as he waits in line to redeem a free fast food sandwich. A man convinced he could get anywhere in the country more easily than he could drag himself out to the suburbs for the next shit job. A man ready to blow away this old world he has become so mired in, and so tired of.
White Ibis, on the other hand, finds the narrator moving to the Florida with his girlfriend and cat. He is, “objectively, what one might call, you know, sort of unemployable” (31) and spends much of his time searching for work. He applies for the same jobs he had before, but for less money. As he describes it—and the experience of so many millennials who came of age during the recession—“sideways we go on this gradual lowering.” (65). He gets rejected for cashier jobs and refuses to swing a sign while wearing a bagel suit, despite his experience, for fear of dying in the Florida heat. He is a life of gigs, of part-time work, of projects. I found myself asking if his art was a byproduct of these circumstances, or a justification for them.
But all is not lost in the Sunshine State. The voice that has driven us forward so far seems softened. The mania is gone. So, too, is the violence and despair. One wonders whether his sudden adjacency to the country club cliques of his girlfriend’s family has opened up new avenues of existing in the world. One with relatives and girl scouts, gated-community socials and some distance from grinding poverty. It certainly offers a hilarious vein of observation for the protagonist as he encounters a charming cast of Floridians. And more to the point, Pink’s narrator now seems to be confronting his own feelings of inadequacy without laying waste to his soul. There is a certain humaneness in this depiction of a life filled with dead ends. And Pink’s narrator seems to find something sincere in the unexpected relationships he encounters down south, something that may help anchor a life outside of the ceaseless grind to make rent.