May 1, 2013

Book review: "Rontel," by Sam Pink (Jason's take)

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Rontel, by Sam Pink

Rontel
By Sam Pink
Lazy Fascist
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

I picked up this short novel because Sam Pink is part of that whole hipster-lit crowd I've mentioned here before -- a Brooklyn/Chicago circle of friends that includes Tao Lin, Jordan Castro, Heiko Julien and more -- who I'm fascinated by because they are literally the first group of young artists in my life who make me feel legitimately old and out of touch, and I find something really interesting about trying to figure out why that is. This newest by Pink, for example, is similar to Lin's work in that neither really have a three-act plot to speak of; this is simply a rambling look at a few random days in the life of a random slacker artist, as he travels across the city to visit a girlfriend, hangs out with his brother and their cat in their crappy apartment, and interacts with the other lumpen proletariats of the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago where he lives (and where, by the way, I live too -- in fact, I'm pretty sure the main character's place is supposed to be just a few blocks from my own apartment). And then if this wasn't enough, Pink was also recently accused by a prominent critic of being racist when it came to his portrayal of these Uptown down-and-outers; and that has led to one of those famed curse-laden full-out flame wars that will spill over into four or five different blogs and Tumblr accounts and Twitter feeds, and that has brought a newfound notoriety to this book that didn't exist before.

So is Rontel racist? No, not really -- it's just that Pink did a bad job with the phonetic spelling of these characters' dialogue, which is why I always urge writers to skip writing phonetic dialogue whatsoever. (Trust your audience -- they'll know what you're trying to accomplish with your regional dialogue, even without such excruciating lines as, "When y'have beewd-uh, don't haffa cut ew face in duh mo'nin.") No, the real problem is that Pink simply doesn't have much of interest to actually say; for while this is competently written, it just really doesn't add up to much by the end, and since he's not really that good yet at building deeply complex characters either, he doesn't have the excuse for skipping a plot like the masters of character-heavy novels have. This is the part of the whole situation that makes me feel out of touch -- because all of the writers just mentioned are like this, which as a heavy reader I just don't find very compelling, yet these meandering, hyper-bland, pop-culture-infused books are the revered darlings of such heavy-hittting intellectual organizations like HTMLGiant, which means there simply must be something there that my 44-year-old ass is not seeing. Although I enjoy checking out the work of all these writers, I encourage them to really dig within themselves and find some much more substantial things to write about in the future; because funny clothes and Twitter wars can only get an artist so far, and one day when they wake up and realize they're no longer young and sexy and funny and go out a lot and drink a lot, their audience is suddenly going to have no more tolerance for their flighty plotless stories, which as a veteran of the poetry slam in the 1990s is something I know a little bit about, believe me. Rontel comes recommended, but it's only a limited recommendation today, a short read but one you should take with a grain of salt, from a writer who's talented enough to tackle deeper and more significant work and now needs to sit down and actually do so.

Out of 10: 8.0

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

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:01 PM, May 1, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |