Sam Pink’s ‘Ice Cream Man’ explores life on the fringes

Ellen Akins

THE WASHINGTON POST – “You know, it’s funny,” Eddie said in Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan film Stranger Than Paradise. “You come to someplace new, and everything just looks the same.” And it is funny, because “someplace new” is inevitably just one more drab apartment or bleak landscape on the ragged edge of American life.

Like Eddie and his hapless pals, the characters in Sam Pink’s stories exist on the fringes of American culture and are barely hanging on there.

They are dishwashers, sandwich makers and machine operators. They set up banquet halls or drive ice cream trucks. That’s when they’re working, though as often as not they aren’t: They’re sort of underclass flâneurs who happen upon car crashes; shoot the breeze with homeless people; and hang out with old friends in a filthy, ramshackle apartment, scavenging for “treasure” in the lot next door (“Mostly old bottles”), smashing paint cans and throwing a football, which is one of their few “non-clothing/furniture/garbage-related possessions”. So, of course, they take care of it.

“It was our roommate,” the narrator explains. “Our sibling.”

The description of the football unfolds in a series of one-line bursts, which is typical of Pink’s style: brief paragraphs, often mere sentences or fragments, descending in short order toward what might be an insight, a judgment, or a joke – or one of the phrases repeated like an incantation throughout a story.

For instance, in the long story Blue Victoria, the phrase “no real fate” recurs like a drumbeat, seemingly freighted with meaning, as when one character does an impression of “the dweeb kid” that another character, Victoria, is dating:

“And for some reason, it comforted me.

Not the impression of the dweeb, but the idea of Victoria having a relationship with this dweeb.

Not the idea of Victoria having a relationship with the dweeb, but doing anything, at the same time as all the rest of us, doing whatever.

No real fate.”

In The Machine Operator, the collection’s other long story, the refrain comes from a résumé that the narrator spies at a temp agency: Under duties performed in a previous job, the applicant had entered: “what a janitor do”. That refrain shows up again when the narrator is getting trained on the intricacies of his new job at “a plant that manufactured and boxed metal pieces.”

“Spray the machine down with lube.

And start over.

Like nothing had happened.

A never-ending process.

What a janitor do.”

Pink’s narrator is a noticer, a recorder, a performer of his observations in a world where little beyond the moment matters, conversation is mostly a matter of trading wisecracks and insults, and circumstances are beyond one’s control. Pink can make perfect little sentences (“Phones babysit bored kids.”) or poke fun at the tools of his craft (“I pass the sole gas station, with the whoevers from wherever going wherever buying whatever for whatever.”).

He can be funny, faux-profound, loopily self-aware (“If I was jumping rope, then I’d be jumping rope, and nothing else could be happening.”). And, finally, against the drumbeat of “no real fate,” he can insist:

“There is more than this.

And I matter absolutely, until I don’t.”