Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories by Sam Pink. (Soft Skull Press)
The best way to describe The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories by Sam Pink is probably to pull a direct quote out of the book, right? Yeah, let’s try that and see how it goes:
“The chef doesn’t hate anyone.
Because he hates everything.”
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it?
This collection of short stories centers around down-and-out, working-class people who are on the verge of poverty (if not already living in squalor). People who are working low-end, entry-level, minimum wage—if not less—jobs to get by. They’re the dishwashers, the caterers, and, yes, the ice cream men of the world. The stories take a close look at these worldviews that have so much hate for the external world and we can’t help but laugh, feeling a deep kinship with them. Sounds weird to read something inherently depressing and follow it with a laugh, but that’s the charm Pink is able to weave into his book.
There is a series of kitchen stories, following a core employee in each story; first the dishwasher, then the sandwich maker, and finally at the end there is a tangential wedding story where the cook makes a brief appearance. These kitchen stories are particularly fascinating because they allow us to be a fly on the wall. We see the scene play out without a larger statement on a story or theme. We don’t know where these characters go after work or where they came from before, but we can certainly take guesses based on their demeanor throughout the grueling shift. It’s crude, ball-busting, and real.
I’ve met these people. Hell, I’ve worked with these people, and it’s a unique kind of refreshing to see them come to life on the page. These are the forgotten—well, I almost typed heroes, but that diminishes the work Pink is doing with this collection, so—citizens of the working class. The point isn’t to weave in a larger point with a moral to tell us how to be better. No, this is putting a spotlight on those we tend to forget about. Pink is taking it upon himself to not allow us to forget them.
Sounds weird to read something inherently depressing and follow it with a laugh, but that’s the charm Pink is able to weave into his book.
Now, this next part is going to sound a little kooky. I know this, and I’m sure you’ll raise an eyebrow, but that’s okay. But hear me out.
The sparse form that Pink employs reminds me of the Bible—or any religious text—but the Psalms to be specific. I cracked The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories knowing it was short fiction, but it immediately felt like what I was reading was much closer to prose poetry. Although, I quickly realized that’s not quite right either. It’s something in between.
Each sentence in the collection stands alone, with Pink harnessing a weight and importance to these seemingly mundane moments. This move elevates them to something holy. And I realize what I’m saying seems to contradict my previous statements about how this is a book about watching people in their natural environments. I think the two can coexist, though, like yin and yang. The story about the ice cream man isn’t really about a sad dude who’s trying to make a buck—it’s about a holy man who has picked up a life of selling ice cream as his calling. When he is in his truck, we see a man in his true element, molding to the contours of his life and providing happiness to the citizens of the world he passes by.
One thing I think I’ve left out while I’ve rambled on about The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories is how likable all the characters are. They exhibit a confidence I can only dream of (and I don’t know if you’re a faithful reader of my reviews, but when I read something that has a unique confidence I tend to get a little looser and jokey—it’s a sign of a book with a certain amount of pizazz). The situations are not enviable and I wouldn’t wish any of these jobs on anyone, but if I could be in the same room with them—and, in some ways, years ago I have been—I’d be happy to take up the apron for another summer of underappreciated work.
And a quote to wrap things up:
“There’s a lot of bullshit jobs that need near-constant staffing.”
Ain’t that the goddamn truth. At least we get The Ice Cream Man and Other Stories out of the whole deal.