Sink: A Memoir, Joseph Earl Thomas

‘Sink: A Memoir’ Shuns Respectability Politics

Sink is more than an ethnographic memoir. It’s a harrowing glimpse into an omnipresent but often unseen Americana.

Sink: A Memoir
Joseph Earl Thomas
Grand Central
February 2023

Everyone tells Joey that he “ain’t got no heart”, and he somewhat agrees.

Sink: A Memoir written by award-winning writer Joseph Earl Thomas is an unusual coming-of-age tale. The protagonist, the aforementioned Joey—Thomas as a child – undergoes a transformation. Externally he physically grows to be the tallest kid in class, a noticeable change akin to when the Pokémon he loves evolve. Internally the transformation is much more subtle.

In Joey’s world, there is no comeuppance for those that wronged him, no revelations or startling pronouncements that leave the reader a gasped. His is an arduous world. Restricted in scope and undaunting, Sink shuns respectability politics. Thomas removes Dunbar’s Mask to tell us about his childhood. Reader, it’s time to count all the tears and sighs. Domestic violence, verbal abuse, crack cocaine, and constant fear and pain abound. Survival is not guaranteed, and fucked up people do their best with what they have. They often fail. For young Joey, just making it to tomorrow is a victory.

Sink is predominately told in the third person by a narrator, presumably Thomas, with hindsight and a jaded perspective informed as a result of seeing too much. Thomas has insights into a world that many among us only glimpse through reading other memoirs or works of ethnography.

Sink is filled with pessimism that is specific to modern American life. At his lowest, Joey considers that “human survival dictated that a lot of people got hurt for other people to feel good and alive”. In our current cultural milieu, memoirs focus on people who rise to the occasion and transcend their circumstances to eventually become Übermenschen. We know the stories: the thug pulls himself by the bootstraps to become a successful multi-millionaire; the immigrant nerd, through ruthless machinations, rises to oversee Silicon Valley; and the self-described underdog is elected to office by embracing revanchism. These represent one side of Americana.

Joey’s story stands as a stark divergence from many popular American memoirs, like the excellent Dreams from My Father (2004) by Barack Obama, the pollyannish The Education of an Idealist (2019) by Samantha Powers, and the unscrupulously deceptive Love and Consequences: A Memoir of Hope and Survival (2008) by Margaret Jones. Unlike those books, in Sink, Thomas is not concerned with portraying the people in his life with rose-tinted glasses or as irredeemable villains. They are human beings, fucked-up, but human beings, nonetheless. Other writers might assuage the negative and write a sanguine ending; Thomas does not. For Joey, growing up comes at an enormous cost. There is no striving, just surviving.

Sink is a challenging book. There is a lot of trauma and pain within its pages. Much of my childhood, not too dissimilar to Thomas’, flashed before me as I read — a dysfunctional family, the frustrations of a life constricted by poverty, hunger, and overbearing homophobia at home. Popop, Joey’s grandfather and only father figure, constantly calls him a “faggot” and “ungrateful” and questions his blackness. Yet, according to Joey, “Popop was always right because he was the only person… with a job“. Even displays of affection towards Joey’s younger sister, Mika, could be socially hazardous. Thomas recounts that “Joey wanted to love his little sister, but knew that saying it unabashedly, to her especially, would make them both weaker.”

Joey is a sensitive, creative, and strange boy. Though life in inner-city Philadelphia hunts the child, it’s not all gloom. He loves to cook in his Easy-Bake Oven. He finds escape in video games, drawing, anime, pets, basketball, friendship, and whatever is accessible. It is through these things that a brief respite is found. Joey even learns to read at a college level by playing video games like Star Ocean: The Second Story. He loves animals; his dog Blacky (R.I.P.), Quaily the quail (R.I.P.), and even an alligator named Rex (R.I.P.), to name a few. Caring for these pets nurtures Joey.  

Levity and warmth can be found throughout. Thomas utilizes short, intermittent chapters as palette cleansers for the emotionally drained reader to rest from their voyeuristic foray into Joey’s hard-knock life. Sink makes use of the length of chapters to offer satisfaction as well as frustration. As the memoir progresses, Joey goes from being at the mercy of his surroundings to being able to persevere and endure the cruelty around him. He gains more agency and wills it. Certain wounds may no longer be visible, but they remain.

Joey is a geek who loves anime (Fullmetal Alchemist and Dragon Ball Z), Japanese role-playing games, and Pokémon. This is emphasized in Sink‘s promotional materials. But Joey’s geekdom does not take precedence over other aspects of his life. Maybe Sink was promoted this way to make Joey’s life more accessible to a wider audience. In his memoir, The Tao of the Wu, Wu-Tang Clan’s RZA describes Dragon Ball Z as “the journey of the black man in America”. Joey, like the main protagonist of the beloved anime, is a Saiyan – the race of warriors in Dragon Ball Z – of sorts. Maybe being a geek helped Joey become Joseph Earl Thomas, but I knew too many kids growing up in the Bronx whose love for Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! did not save them. There is no societal-wide salvation to be found in geek culture. Thomas makes this reality evident in Sink.

How does a child internalize the violence and abuse found in Sink? Joey “…wanted these names, these people, to die” and eventually concluded that “every hurt person who wasn’t him was its own small victory”. There is no happy ending and no Übermensch created in Sink. Thomas ends his memoir in the summer before Joey begins high school.

Sink lays bare the trauma of a Black boy growing up in America. Though Thomas would eventually make it out of the ghetto, so to speak, many others did not. Thomas has chutzpah for showing “beneath our feet and long the mile” and not letting “the world dream otherwise”.

Disclaimer: Luis Aguasvivas was Joseph Earl Thomas’ student in 2022 at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research

Related Links:

Podcast for Social Research, Episode 61: Narrating Black Life—Joseph Earl Thomas’s “Sink”

“Reality Marble: Build a World Any Way You Can”