Saturday, July 25, 2015

Summer reading: Jenni Rivera and Sam Pink

Books by Jenni Rivera (Unbreakable, an autobiography) and Sam Pink (Rontel, a novel) were my reading recently. 

As a child, Jenni Rivera knew she wanted to be a performer. She was smart, talented and pretty, almost a baby face, but she was SO street.  A Latina growing up in tough, workingclass,  multicultural neighborhoods in the Los Angeles area, and throughout her life right up to the very end, she was a fighter.  She’d fight girls as well as boys, women and men, with fists and objects and words.  As she describes in her autobiography, trouble always seemed to find her, manifested in bad choices of boyfriends and husbands (very bad, in some cases), misplaced trust, and just plain negative shit.    

A memorable passage in Unbreakable describes a teen mom, with a 3-year-old daughter and pregnant with a second child, no dad in the picture, living in a converted garage, no car, getting up at 4 a.m. getting herself and her daughter ready, securing the little girl in the child seat on a ten-speed bicycle, and then peddling to the child care center, then across town to her community college classes, and then to her job.  And dreaming of being a performer.

Improbably, she rose from these unglamorous beginnings to become “the most acclaimed Spanish-language singer in the United States.” This young mother became a powerful force in Mexican American culture, playing to sold out crowds at Staples Center, Gibson Amphitheater, and other venues in Los Angeles. 

Her popularity spread across the country (and in Mexico), and her story—the tough Chicana from Long Beach, California, who raised five kids with or without fathers around, the obstacles she overcame, (more than a few of her own making) and her songs, composed and recorded in popular Mexican music styles—resonated profoundly with Latino audiences, particularly women.  They adored her.  Her records sold in the tens of millions.  Later, in addition to musical enterprises, she starred in reality television shows, and was beginning a movie career when, in December of 2012, she was killed in a plane crash in Mexico on her way to a performance.  She was 43.

Unbreakable is, of course, a show business autobiography, released after her death, and there is a lot of promotional b.s. that I’m sure was added by other hands. And the book is explicit in its descriptions of events and relationships.  Jenni Rivera’s ritmo and style in her music is not necessarily evident on every page of the book, but her life is a hell of a story.  

While Jenni Rivera was a Latina with a fierce desire to succeed and live large, the narrator of Sam Pink’s novel, Rontel, is a 29-year old white male, single, no kids, no ambition, who lives, minimally, both in the middle of Chicago and deeper still in his twisted imagination.
The novel opens on the narrator’s last day of work, he has been laid off.  He shares an apartment with his brother (living on unemployment) and seems to be a somewhat depressed and perpetual slacker.  Except for when he’s with his girlfriend (she works and has her own place!) he’s got a lot of time on his hands, and the book is a bizarre odyssey of listlessly looking for a new job as he travels the public transportation system of Chicago, and a crazy album of the people he encounters.  The narrator combines outrage, resignation, and anomie, all at the street level—and not Bling Street either, not Pimpmobile Street; no, these streets are down and out street, and burnt out Brains Street, and missing teeth street, and crazy people street.  And he gives the damaged their due. He can discuss pot pie with the best of them. 

Unlike Jenni Rivera channeling her anger into performance, Pink’s narrator internalizes the strange eruptions of (often transgressive) imagination, like mental asides in the apocalyptic drama in his head. Some examples:

I got off the Blue Line train and went down the stairs into the transfer. In the long, tiled tunnel between the Blue Line and the Red Line, I imagined flames slowly building at each end of the tunnel, with no time or way for me to get out on either end. So I just stand there screaming and flames fill the tunnel.


Paying for my food, I imagined myself accepting change from the cashier then floating sideways out of the sandwich place. Just, out the door and up into the sky. Not too fast, not too slow. With enough time to fully enjoy it.

And sometimes he goes way off on a polluted stream of sick consciousness. For instance, he sees a dead cat in the street, mangled in such a way it looked as though someone had run over the carcass, had “peeled out” on it, in fact.  And then his mind takes over:

That seemed funny to me—someone “peeling out” on a dead cat. And for a few seconds, the thought of someone peeling out on a dead cat made me completely lose my mind. Anybody in Chicago could’ve robbed me or murdered me or whatever and I wouldn’t have known what to do. Insane!

This is alterity similar to the brain stem flowering in a Robert Williams nightmare.  Now the obsession and the afterburner thrust to the next level:

Couldn’t stop thinking about someone “peeling out” over a cat carcass. And how I’d have to watch, even if I closed my eyes to it. How the mouth of the cat carcass would shake terribly at me as the tire spun. And how, yeah, it’d be fucking awesome if a magic key came out of the cat’s shaking mouth—a magical key that took me on a magical journey and ended up, somehow, with me being born as a baby eagle but like, with the mind I have now (why not).

Who would, just out of nowhere, think of that?  That’s the level of innovation of Mr. Pink, superb at recreating the rhythms of speech among the burnt-out cases his narrator travels among, and nicely confident at the controls of seemingly runaway mental train.  (Also of note is the re-creation of a post-fight interview with a heavyweight boxing champion, a tour de force of inflection, timing, and description.)  There’s a spontaneity to all of it that seems effortless and improvised, but I’m here to tell you, it can only be done by an artist, and it takes a lot of work.

I enjoyed both books.

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