I’ve been thinking about the “bottom dogs” genre that emerged in the Depression-era US, and so I recently picked up Tom Kromer’s novel Waiting for Nothing (1935), a book I’d not read since grad school. The novel (or memoir: like many instances of “life writing” from this period, the boundary is pretty hard to make out) consists of several episodes in the life of a young unemployed “Stiff” who is “on the fritz,” trying to make ends meet by hustling, panhandling, stealing, pimping, whoring, and hobo-ing. What makes the text distinctive is its language: paratactic, spare, unsentimental, yet razor-sharp and uncannily moving in its close observations of social rituals embedded in everyday life that appear in the clearest light precisely because the novel’s unnamed first-person narrator is so alienated from them.
We get a feel for this oddly moving mix of hardboiled posture and sympathy in the dedication, certainly one of my favorites in all of literature: “To Jolene, who turned off the gas.”
The preface also speaks interestingly to what is for me one of the most fascinating aspects of narratives by working-class authors in this period: the investment in authenticity, spontaneity “telling it like it is,” coupled with an investment in describing the gritty materiality of the writing process. The latter tends to complicate the former, shedding light on how the “Stiff” became an author and how the “low” experiences that make up the text’s content came to be represented in book form. Here’s how Kromer describes the process:
Save for four or five incidents, it is strictly autobiographical. Some of the events portrayed did not occur in the same sequence as I gave them, for I have juggled them in order to better develop the story. The “Stiff” idiom is, of course, authentic. (unnumbered page)
Parts of the book were scrawled on Bull Durham papers in box cars, margins of religious tracts in a hundred missions, jails, one prison, railroad sand-houses, flop-houses, and on a few memorable occasions, actually pecked out with my two index fingers on an honest-to-God typewriter. (from the Preface, unnumbered page)
So the content leaves its signature on the form, in a way, since one can connect Kromer’s brutal, paratactic style to the exigencies of the “material support” of the writing (in book history-speak): the particular means of inscribing a blank space that is the sine qua non of composition.
The style also lends itself to the book’s distinctive humor, a quality that differentiates it from other narratives of low life. I remember one of my grad school friends, Damien Keane, writing something about the comedy (with a nod to Samuel Beckett, as I remember, who also knew a think or two about comedy and waiting for nothing), and the first part of the book is full of bleak, dark, humor: grotesque comedy rooted in the body, comedy of manners that casts a bright light on the way inequality creates comic juxtapositions, comedies rooted in the humiliation and violence of capitalist exchange.
One of the most interesting of these moments comes when our hero is compelled to ply the rough trade in order to get a “hot and a flop,” in the argot of the book. He loiters in a park and is picked up by a queen. He knows she knows he knows she’s a he, and their relationship proceeds incrementally, while both sides calculate the risks and benefits. The narrator expresses neither of the reactions one might expect: violent disgust by way of protecting one’s “proper” identity and boundaries or a frisson of pleasure at transgressing said norms. Instead, we get a laconic set of captions for the ritual gestures of seduction that manage (like most of the humor in the book) to be at once deeply ironic and humanely earnest. The end of the seduction scene arrives with what seems like mutual fatigue rather than bliss: after delaying the inevitable by calculating how to get the most benefit for the least humiliation, he capitulates as he (and we) knew he would, “You can always depend on a stiff having to pay for what he gets. I pull off my clothes and crawl into bed” (74).
And this sense of passive activity, of waiting for nothing of, (with apologies to Wallace Stevens) the pain of merely circulating, resounds throughout the book in ways that mark it with the Depression-era stamp yet show its distinctiveness within that cultural moment.