Sometimes when I’m feeling masochistic I will shut off The Walking Dead and read Nietzsche; and I, being easily persuaded, begin questioning the knowability of absolute truth, of being sure reality exists. Yet I sit here: I know there’s a chair, I know there is a book in my hands, I know there are words and language in front of me. Yet modern science bears out my skepticism; that is, if the chair is made up atoms, and most of the chair consists of empty space, then what am I sitting on – empty space? And does anyone really know what’s in the atom? Or what’s inside the quark? It appears to be infinitely reducible, and when that sinks in you can start to apply the same questions to everything else in life, such as Love (Does she really love me, or does she just enjoy it when I buy her dinner?), Politics (Do we live in a Democracy? No, of course not), Art (Is a framed, white canvas with no image Art?)1, and Writing.
Sam Pink will call into question your predisposed notions of what makes literature great (a discussion of the Canon is inappropriate here, but suffice it to say, if the Canon were a brick wall, Pink would piss all over it), what a story is supposed to consist of (Aristotle’s three-act structure), what makes certain fiction literary (character-driven, not plot-driven), and why, exactly, do we have such demarcations anyway? One reason, of course, is taste. But tastes vary widely by person and culture, and the only absolute truths of which we can be certain regarding Taste is that it is intangible and mutable.
I suggest you listen to Black Flag or Minor Threat when you read Pink’s short novel Witch Piss, published by Lazy Fascist Press in 2014. It won’t take you very long, and you’ll enjoy it, but you may also think to yourself – nay, you should definitely think to yourself – this breaks every convention I was taught in my workshop.
We need work like this, whether you, personally, like it (from an aesthetic perspective) or not, and whether you, personally, like it (desire such a need to exist) or not. Pink’s work won’t be put on the shelf next to David Foster Wallace, Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy. But that’s okay. In the day when critics lament the “MFA-ification” of American writing, it’s important to read fresh voices who are brave enough to try new things.
So what is he doing here, in Witch Piss?
There really isn’t much in the way of plot: We follow the meanderings and conversations of an unnamed narrator for a period of time as he hangs out and drinks with some homeless guys, drunks, and drug dealers on the streets of Chicago. He spends a lot of time with a unique character who goes by Spider-Man, and Spider-Man’s obese, wheelchair-bound girlfriend Janet. There are both tender and abusive moments in their relationship, all reported by the objective, emotionally distant narrator, who, while not homeless, is himself going through a troubled (though unspecified) period in his mental health. That’s probably all the plot summary you need.
The author does away with the traditional story engine, allowing other aspects of the narrative to take precedence. By delocating the narrator, he provides an unbiased entry point into a slice of life that rarely gets accurate representation: homelessness, poverty, addiction, all of the people thrown out of our broken mental-health system and left on the streets to fend for themselves.
Most people, I imagine, tend to either see homeless people as rubbish on the sidewalk that they wish would be eliminated or don’t see them at all. Other people see them as vestibules for pity and opportunities for charity, or worse, just momentary chances to feel good about themselves. Pink doesn’t do that here. At no point does he come across either sanctimonious or magnanimous; rather, he observes and reports. One reason the author is able to do this so effectively is because his ear for dialogue and dialect is so sharp (though, as with everything in the book, it will turn some people away):
“Wha’s good, cous?” [Face] said, slapping my hand then pulling me in for a hug.
“Shit, you wanna walk with me? I got some beers and a little bit of a fiff back at my mama crib. We can tip some with bitch-ass Troy if you wanna.”
Troy lived in an alley near Face’s mom’s house, where Face stayed.
On the way there, we passed the library.
Larry was asleep.
“Hahhhh, he smack-drunk,” Face said. “They threw his ass out after he ain have no money. Du at the bar didn’t have to be so rough wit his ass but he ain have no money.”
The narrator reports on the less-glamorous side of Chicago effectively – the anti-Magnificent Mile, the infamous part – but he never pretends to be joining the ranks of the people he hangs out with, nor does he assume their life and history. Rather, he receives their stories and, like a conduit, transcribes them to the reader:
[Face] described the layout of the different buildings in the projects where he grew up.
It was where the Bulls and Blackhawks played, a mile and a half outside of The Loop.
“See, they was fo buildings in my projects. Different gang in each building, cous. They was um, GDs, BDs, Foes, and Travs. I’s hustling Travs, cous.”
“Traveling Vicelords,” I said.
“Yizzir. Fo buildings. GDs in this one” – he motioned with his hand, keeping his other hand at a different location – “BDs right here, and Foes up in there, and us Travs, we’s in this building… We had a abandoned apartment at the bottom of my building.” He pointed at the large freight door behind Troy’s bed, where Troy was sleeping. “And in the middle, they was a big empty window. Talkin’ bout, we use’a creep up along against the wall, then” – he turned sideways and held out an imaginary gun – “Blaow Blaow. Poppin BDs all day.”
In a more poignant moment, the reader gets a rare peek at the loneliness and desperation of the narrator, and we can assume this is what drove him to hang out with the homeless people in the first place. He joins a crowd of guys, all wearing wigs, in a doorway:
“What’s good, man?” I said, slapping hands with Danny.
He had a blanket over his legs, drinking fruit-flavored malt liquor.
“Shit, just drinking,” he said. “Lissnina So game.”
The Thox game.
Said they’d been celebrating earlier for some other guy’s birthday.
Which meant he had more friends than me.
And a better social life.
This moment exemplifies one of the central tenets I believe pervades the book: though these people aren’t wealthy, white, educated, clean, or stable; though they don’t live in McMansions in the suburbs or wear trendy, expensive fashion, they are not miserable. They are constantly telling jokes and stories, helping each other out whenever possible, and making the best of their situations. In fact, the most unhappy person in the book is the narrator.
Some may say that I am reading into the book more than I should, providing authorial intention where it doesn’t exist, adding critical acclaim to what is really deficiency in skill. These people are philistines. Can Sam Pink write a standard MFA-workshop-worthy story? Probably. But instead he chooses to represent nature with surreal language and discomfiting situations. The prose will be funny to some and appallingly filthy to others. The story will be interesting and unique to some and boring and lazy to others. The book is authentic Chicago, as authentic as riding the CTA in the middle of February, and to be honest, I don’t think the author himself really cares what each individual reader feels; he writes the work he wants to write, whether you like it or not.
1See Yasmina Reza’s play, Art (1994) is a poignant analysis of how conversations about art and taste can destroy friendships
Phillip Mandel is a fiction writer in the MFA program at Texas State University.