The front cover of Sam Pink's book Ketchup features a drawing o a lake scene on a salmon pink background.
Credit: Courtesy the artist

Sam Pink makes it look easy and it isn’t. Over some dozen books of poetry, stories, and prose, he’s refined a spare but precise style that reads like truth. He gives alley dwellers, dishwashers, and city wanderers the dignity and gravitas that other writers normally reserve for the upper echelon. Pink continues to write about these kinds of people with care in his recently released novel, Ketchup, one of his best books so far.

Set in a small town in southwest Michigan, the book chronicles a few days in the life of an unnamed narrator as he cooks and serves drinks at a bar and grill called Pop’s. He spends his leisure time shooting the breeze with old people and daydreaming at a duck pond. This is how Mary, the narrator’s new boss, describes the job:

‘You’re gonna,’ she says, not quite making eye contact. ‘You’re gonn-a, I mean, heh, look I’ll tell ya how it is, you’re gonna do it all, k? People come in here and wanna do this and that, I tellem, I says look, ya do it all. Ya work the grill, ya bartend, ya serve. That’s how it is, alright? Sound good?’

The interview for my own first bartending gig was eerily similar. Most people you meet say a lot without meaning to. Small, seemingly forgettable everyday moments add up to a kind of unassuming profundity. Pink is a perceptive chronicler of daily life. He catches odd turns of phrase and unintentionally revelatory insights as well as any writer I know. 

I had heard of Pink for some time, but only started reading his books this year. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Besides the fact that he’s a fiercely iconoclastic writer and painter, bent on making his way largely apart from the machinations of the larger literary and art worlds, his documentation of his experiences in the service industry hit particularly close to home for me. As someone who’s worked at bakeries, restaurants, and bars, and driven a taxi over the past 35 years, my antennae are always up for writers who make those lowly industries their subject matter. I’m not interested in privileged slummers who go “undercover” or moonlight in jobs they don’t actually need, as a means to have something to write about. I never get that feeling reading Pink. He doesn’t put the people he writes about below himself, nor does he examine them like an anthropologist. Their life is also his.

That’s not to say that he’s the same as regulars at Pop’s like the character Ronny in Pink’s Ketchup:

He always tells me the story of losing all his money when the stock market ‘took a shit’ in 2008.

The story usually involves him putting a finger to his head like a gun.

Lost close to a million dollars overnight.

Which is when he started drinking more, developed diabetes, lost a leg, and brings us to today.

Ketchup is available on Amazon and also directly from the author via his Twitter or Instagram.

I can’t fact-check this or any of the other stories Pink writes, but after decades of listening to people’s tales of woe in bars and taxis, I have no doubt they’re 100 percent real (at least to the tellers.)

Pink answered a few questions via text recently. He cites William S. Burroughs’s Junky as the book that inspired him to write. When I ask whether it was the style or subject of that book that grabbed him, he answers, “[ . . . ] neither, I was reading Junky and thought about how much I was enjoying it and it was really cool that he took the time to make something that brought me that joy so it made me want to do that one day.” He also mentioned Hemingway’s short story, “The Killers,” as a favorite. Some of Pink’s writing about work life reminds me of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office and Factotum as well.

His prose often looks like poetry on the page. Most paragraphs are a single sentence; very few are more than two or three. It gives the writing a deceptive lightness. He pares the verbiage down to essentials but pulls no punches. In between matter-of-fact interactions, Pink seamlessly slips in philosophical musings and existential wonder.

In Ketchup, the narrator’s downtime is often spent at a duck pond, where he picks out a white mallard with an odd poof of hair on the crown of his head. He’s christened Bedhead and over time becomes part avatar/part spirit animal. Pink identifies with this odd, ornery bird as much as he does with Mack, the conspiracy-minded old man who runs a repair shop no one visits, a few doors down from Pop’s. He’s able to accept those he comes into contact with on their own terms and renders their lives as worthy—whether they think the same or not.

Aside from his focus on the service industry in his writing, the perils of dealing with the publishing industry also make me identify with Pink. He has published with a succession of indie publishers over the past two decades, but has now struck out on his own. In addition to Ketchup, he has recently self-published handsome new editions of some of his out-of-print back catalog. They are all designed by Michael Kazepis and feature Pink’s distinctive artwork on the covers. They are available on Amazon, but if you value workers and want to support Pink, you should contact him via Twitter or Instagram and he’ll send you the books himself. 

At a time when colossal media companies swallow every bit of human endeavor and spit it out in uniform, easily digestible containers, designed solely for a consumer to crave more, without knowing why, it’s a breath of fresh air to find someone like Sam Pink. He writes simply and clearly but in a way that only he could, because it comes from firsthand experience. His stories aren’t “content”; they’re lives lived.

An earlier posting of this review referred to the character Mack as “Walt.” The name has since been corrected and the Chicago Reader regrets the error.