May 1, 2013

Book Review: "Rontel" by Sam Pink (Travis' take)

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Rontel by Sam Pink

By Sam Pink
Electric Literature/Lazy Fascist
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

I've been vaguely aware for a year or so now that kids cooler than me seem to like the verbal stylings of the artist known as Sam Pink, but I probably never would have gotten around to purchasing Rontel if not for this review, and Mr. Pink's over the top takedown of the reviewer on his own blog, which was then followed by a whole slew of Mr. Pink's homies/groupies chiming in, belittling the reviewer, stroking Mr. Pink's ego, etc. Ah, reading and writing in the internet age. I am not sure where I learned of this controversy, or even if it constitutes a controversy at all, but there was something about Mr. Pink's reaction--defensive, combative, morally superior, arrogant to the extreme--that compelled me to buy the book and see for myself. I'm always a sucker for brashness in a writer.

The review in question calls into account Mr. Pink's use of dialect and suggests that a white guy using "ghetto talk" when portraying black characters is problematic. Mr. Pink's defense is basically that he doesn't name any character's race in Rontel, and if you assume a character is black due to the dialect, then you are the racist one.

Before I get into any of this, let me say that I'm happy I purchased the book. It costs something like eight bucks on Amazon, and for your eight bucks you get a nice-looking paperback with a very distinctive cover. It feels like something fresh and new even before you open it, and when you do open it you're greeted with the first line: "After my girlfriend left for work this morning, I lay in her bed for an hour looking at the wall." As far as first sentences go, it's a good one. Dryly funny, strange, and a nice introduction to the narrator we're about to spend the next 87 pages with. The sentence immediately following the first is: "Fuck, this is really good--I thought." As in, the wall is really good, or staring at the wall is really good. Or being awake and alone and in his girlfriend's bed is really good. Whatever that feeling is, it's one the reader can relate to--waking up alone, staring at the wall and feeling nothing in particular, but feeling good. Alas, the narrator soon rouses himself, is confronted with his girlfriend's disapproving roommate, and takes to the streets of Chicago. That brief encounter with the wall is the last time in this slim book that our narrator has a positive reaction to anything that appears in front of him.

The negative outlook in itself isn't a bad thing. Many of Pink's observations are very funny, and the book is easy to digest. We follow the narrator across town to his own apartment, through a lazy day, and then back to his girlfriend's. Nothing much happens in the way of plot or conflict, and even though the book takes place over the course of only a few days, nothing is covered in much detail. The story is 87 pages, but those pages are sparsely populated with words. The writing is good, but not particularly dense. I expect many readers will feel Mr. Pink has tapped into something essential about his generation's mood, but I didn't feel that way.

The problem is that any novel--though Rontel is not quite a novel--must at a minimum contain some form of conflict to carry the reader through. I'm not even sure what conflict would look like in story like Rontel, and I'm definitely not suggesting that this book needed a full plot arc with rising tension, a goal that the narrator wants to achieve, obstacles thrown in his path, etc. Instead, Mr. Pink must decide what exactly his narrator's nihilism means, and that worldview must in some way be challenged. As the book stands now, the only real tension is whether the narrator will kill himself. I didn't actually believe this character was suicidal, but actual suicidal behavior would certainly have forced the narrator to butt up against some resistance from the larger world, which is what the book needed. In a way, I think Mr. Pink realized this, and so he attempted to insert gravitas into his story by including both the girlfriend's sister's pregnancy and a cop-killer/murderous rampage/hostage situation at the end of the book.

My instincts tell me that Mr. Pink is a writer on the verge of a breakthrough, which will come when he decides to approach his secondary characters with the care and generosity that he has shown toward his narrator here. I'm not saying that the narrator has to like or respect anyone, but that Mr. Pink must like and respect at least one other character here--be it the brother, the girlfriend, or one of the many bums and homeless people we meet--enough to give his narrator a fully human foil with a chance of breaking through the force-field of scorn and derision he's protecting himself with.

Briefly, back to the "racism" question that brought me to Rontel in the first place, because I think the questions that earlier review raised, and Mr. Pink's defensive reaction, can further illustrate my point and speak to why Rontel is a good but not great book.

Is Rontel racist? Yes and no. To give you a taste, the first use of dialect occurs early on. Two (black) women, one with a missing eye, sit on a park bench having a discussion. "How you gon say bitch with one eye [...] one eye finna murda someone. I cain even see the muthafuckuh. Hah. Wh'I look like, muh fucking magician?" The scene goes on, and the women's conversation switches to their love for pot pies.

In the short space of the book, the narrator comes across perhaps ten more of these scenarios. Strange people saying strange things in strange ways. Some are black, some are Hispanic, some are gay, some are white, some are homeless, some are schizophrenic, and most are some combination thereof. My sensibilities weren't offended by the above mentioned scene involving the two women, or by any scene involving the more colorful characters in the book. Mr. Pink has a real talent for mimicry, and a lot of these little scenes were funny and entertaining.

So, why the over-the-top reaction from Mr. Pink to the review calling the book racist? My gut tells me that Mr. Pink was so defensive because at his heart he knew there was something wrong with his depictions of these characters. And there is a problem. By the end of the book, we're meeting a new weird homeless person every page or two--mouth ticks, twitches, greasy hair, goggles, velcro shoes, brown teeth, "Need a dolla fo'hotdog." It's like Mr. Pink had too much of this material and was struggling to fit it all in. And that's the problem. What all of these scenes consist of is basically the narrator gaping open-mouthed at these people. Its a freak show. They're there mostly to be stared at, to help Mr. Pink communicate to us what a strange and grotesque place Chicago circa the present is, and they never really have a chance to be much more than that. And some of these people are people of color, and some would argue that depicting a person of color as a grotesque caricature to be stared at is racist. I personally find such arguments boring. What I would argue instead is that not allowing any of these characters--or any other characters in the book--their full humanity constitutes a failure in the writing.

Out of 10: 8

Read even more about Rontel: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads Shelfari

Filed by Travis Fortney at 12:02 PM, May 1, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |