By Sam Pink
Lazy Fascist Press, 2014
112 pp., Print
Reviewed by Timothy O’Donnell
Parts of me wanted to grab it by the head and kiss it right on the lips then let it eat my face off.
The other part of me wanted the exact same thing.
Witch Piss is a Chicago novel, but not a “love letter” like so many reviewers are wont to attach to any book so steeped in locale, so enamored by the idea of place as character that they forget that any place is the sum of its inhabitants, that New York, Paris, London and, yes, even Chicago, aren’t worth shit without people.
Witch Piss is also a homeless guy named Spider Man and his shit-stained, wheelchair-bound girlfriend Janet. Witch Piss is crack pipes and piss jugs and temporary housing. It’s chess played on overturned buckets while oil from the Blue Line rains down from above. It’s a food pyramid built on burritos and 40 ounces. It’s “Howx” and Thox games; it’s “Hoowee, namn,” and “Gah be nuts!” and “Suh-mashed that bitch!”
The written tradition is the oral tradition branded into parchment and paper, emails and ebooks, so when everything is fucked we can look back and say that at one point, things weren’t so bad. Sam Pink has taken the art of the oral tradition and pressed its face to the page, writing not so much in ink as in blood and spittle and King Cobra. The characters of Witch Piss speak from the streets, and Pink captures every nuance. Chicago slang, words cut and twisted from the throat to the tongue, bubbling forth with new or missing syllables and letters. The vernacular of Witch Piss is Chicago words, Chicago stories, but also human stories. The universe seems large, but you can traverse it in a few city blocks.
Worlds of possibility crumbled into newer and larger worlds so fast, it was as if none existed.
If Chicago is Hell and the reader is Dante, our Virgil is the unnamed narrator, and could be a) Pink himself, b) you, or c) everyone. He is unnamed, un-described, just some body that breathes and drinks and frequents 7/11; a conduit through which the varied tales of Chicago’s forgotten reach us. He may have a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a job, a drug problem, a cat—we don’t know and, frankly, it doesn’t matter. To flesh out the narrator is to miss what this novel does with the art of storytelling, how it bends a story into itself like Ouroboros, a narrative eating its own tail. We move through the stories that chain Witch Piss together because the narrator is drawn to the storytellers as much as the story.
He takes the reader through urban Chicago. The characters that inhabit Pink’s Chicago are ghosts—forgotten by society, floating, free to do as they please in a Chicago that has no place for them, but they still have a place for Chicago in their souls. Blackhawks, Bulls, “Soax”—even the downtrodden still have love for their city.
Pink’s greatest asset is his bear trap prose. You’re reading Witch Piss and everything is normal. Well, not normal, but described pretty plainly. No purple prose, no literary ass sniffing.
He did really good sound effects. Over 75% of what he was saying was just sound effects.
It isn’t flashy and it never needs to be. While you’re busy walking through Sam Pink’s Chicago, just taking in the scenery…SNAP! A fucking bear trap closes on your foot. Sharp pains shoot up your leg. You pull, but it only makes the hurt worse. You call out for help but nobody comes. You drag your broken leg through back alleys and abandoned stoops.
This is Sam Pink. He wants to hurt you, slowly.
There was an ad on the side of a bus that read, ‘Every baby will grow up to be somebody important’ — showing a baby dressed as a firefighter, one dressed as a doctor, and one as a hamburger.
Actually no, I couldn’t see the third one — think it was a judge maybe.
He also wants you to laugh. And feel sorry for people. Or not give a shit. It’s difficult to tell because the “plot” of Witch Piss is built, like some of the characters’ homes, out of cardboard. This is not a dig at Pink or his novels; plot just isn’t as important here. It would only cloud this travelogue of the grotesque. Ignore the questions swirling in your head and let Pink’s prose take over. Like a severed artery, building to burst when the tourniquet is in place, gushing all over the walls when the pressure is off, what Pink bleeds is Chicago itself—vile and angry, cold and lost.