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REVIEW: Rontel

Author: Sam Pink

2013, Electric Literature

Filed Under: Literary

Find it on Goodreads.

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 7

If familiarity really does breed contempt then it would be hard to imagine a writer more familiar with Chicago than Sam Pink. His latest book, released on Valentine’s Day, is a bipolar love letter to the city that is at turns hilarious and hateful (albeit a love letter that contains the sentences “Fuck Western Avenue and fuck Chicago” and “How do you want me to Fuck you, Chicago”). Pulled by the two opposite poles of antipathy and sentiment, the anonymous narrator of Pink’s Rontel explores Chicago’s down and out, describing their lives with a compassion that feels genuinely heartfelt.

After calling in on his last day of work, Rontel’s narrator wanders through a hot Chicago summer day, visiting his co-workers and neighbors, playing video games with his brother, and petting his passive cat, Rontel. Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness, the narrator’s memories and fantasies (which are about punching strangers in the face as often as embracing them) sometimes overwhelm the present narrative. This balancing act would be impossible to pull off without Pink’s wonderfully profane narration, a mix of vitriol and pity cut with just the right amount of self-aware humor:

On the Blue Line towards The Loop, I sat down and took out a granola bar I’d stolen from my girlfriend’s roommate.
Her roommate had accused me—to my girlfriend—of eating her food.
Which was untrue.
But then because of how hurt I was by the accusation, I started eating her food.
Yes.
Haha fuck off.

Or take this bit describing one of the narrator’s pastimes, posting reviews of products online, many of which he has never actually used:

After reviewing the paper towels, I found a product no one had reviewed.
Earplugs.
I wrote this review: “Wow, just…disappointing.”
Then realized I was writing the review about myself.
Then realized every negative thing I’d ever said was about me too.
Ouch ouch ouch.
Stinging!
I did another review, for a twenty pound barbell.
The review was: “So, ok. I’m a fitness FREAK! But this barbell just isn’t doing it for me. Nope, no way, Jose. I think it’s going to take a much MUCH bigger barbell to successfully smash my mother’s head in. Bottom line: Great for fitness though. Definitely feel stronger.”
In the review section for a television stand, I wrote a review titled: “This is actually a review of my girlfriend’s roommate.”

But the narrator just as frequently fantasizes about closeness. He imagines hugging two women at the bus stop:

I just wanted to be close to their faces.
Kiss the one-eyed lady once—a quick kiss on the lips.
Boom.
How do you feel.
I changed you.
You’ll remember me.

This kind of wild oscillation would become tiring if there wasn’t something more substantial underneath it all. In a telling passage halfway through the book–excerpted in Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading series last fall–the anonymous narrator’s thoughts turn to himself in the middle of a long train ride uptown, and hint at what this might be:

And I realized that part of my problem was I visibly resembled an adult.
But never became one.
People viewed me as an adult but I was just shit.
I always expected adulthood to happen, with a popping or dinging sound when it happened.
But no.
Newly twenty-nine years old and nowhere near anything different than ever before.
Not even youthful.
Just the same pile, moving around.
Shifting anxieties—moving a pile of lead around to different areas of the same giant bare room.
To then realize I’ve become the pile.
The truth.

This seems to be the reason for the narrator’s angst and sentimentality, and the constant swinging back and forth between the two: a frustration over the distance between his life and his expectations. This might explain, too, why his anger is often directed inwards (“Suck my dick—I thought, addressing myself.” and “Kill you—I thought, addressing Chicago [but more accurately, anywhere I was or would be]”).

Towards the short novel’s end, the anonymous narrator meets with his girlfriend to attend an amateur beekeeping class, shop at a thrift store, and go out to eat at a cafe. Throughout these activities the narrator’s violent fantasies and dark thoughts continue, and although he is sometimes obnoxious, the girlfriend does not notice his mania and the fellow class members and Chicago’s pedestrians are only mildly annoyed. Somehow, he gets away with it.

I kept wondering just who in my life the narrator was. Many of the characters will be familiar to those of us living any modern city: a busker in the subway playing poorly for a crowd, the neighborhoods ubiquitous homeless, the bored commuters irked by the search for an escaped prisoner who has killed two police officers because of the delay in their commute. I see these people everyday, but who is telling the story?

The answer might be that any number of the people you brush past on the sidewalk or sit next to in the subway might be the narrator of Rontel: tired, bored, and fed up. He maybe even you in your worst moments. Anyone who has a street-level view of the city they live in, and is familiar enough to hold their home in both love and contempt, could deliver a line like this on Valentine’s Day:

You’re welcome, Chicago.
No, I said you’re fucking welcome.
And also, suck my dick.

Similar Reads: Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson; Threats, Amelia Gray; Light Boxes, Shane Jones

[A review copy was provided.]

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