Ron Kolm, whose work always speaks from a personal level (particularly with the experience that shines through in his tales of the East Village in the 1980s in Duke & Jill), effortlessly demarcates the woes an artist saddled with the annoying task of actually having to make money rather than simply focusing on, say, writing, must endure. His deft prose, spread out over thirteen short stories in Night Shift, reveals the loneliness and human suffering wrought very specifically by the societally forceful hand that shoves us all down the hole called employment.
From tales of attempting to better educate the so-called readers who frequent a bookstore that sells “furniture, school supplies and an interesting assortment of snacks” to dealing in the use of styrene at a plastics factory, there is no stone of drudgery or humiliation left unturned in Kolm’s candid assessment of this thing called work.
Not only does it affect his ability to write as frequently and with as much clarity as he would like, but it also serves to drive an ever-larger wedge in between him and his wife, who seems to do her best to function outside the intimate requirements of the marriage by following her own pursuits. As Kolm describes, “Strange electrical appliances proliferate–juicers and blenders and can openers and hairdryers and waterpiks and humidifiers and crockpots and so on. She works in a health food store, and takes handfuls of vitamins all the time–her purse is filled with them. Also, she’s joined a spa, and I’m sure she’s having an affair with her physical therapist.”
Throughout each new tale of fresh woe, from “A Philadelphia Story” to “1975,” the gradual breakdown of the relationship serves as one of the most telling elements of what it means to work when it comes to having to please another person with your finances. As Kolm puts it, “I have no conception of the future anymore. And having no conception of the future means I’m stuck here in an everlasting present, passively letting events flow over me like waves on the beach. I can’t seem to think my way out of the dilemmas I’m faced with…if it was one problem, or two, I might have a chance, but the job, the house, and my relationship are all tied together…”
This tendency for the stress of work to intermingle with the pressures of monogamy are all too resonant for most pulled into the world of slave labor, especially for, let’s face it, men, who already have a plethora of issues when it comes to the notion of being tied down. Still, like the job, Kolm can’t bring himself to leave, noting, “Like a child picking at a scab on a wound we worry our relationship, but continue on.” The same goes for sticking with the same pointless position in order to pay your way in this realm.
With regard to his art, things don’t fare much better for Kolm, as this is also a source of contention between him and his wife. Nonetheless, to prove that this life is about more than the mere task of sustaining oneself, Kolm describes, “I would sit [on the bus] writing furiously, in a vain attempt to make my life meaningful, transcribing notes I’d make earlier at work, turning them into something usable.” For you see, the artist has to transform his pain into art to make it seem worthwhile, that there is a greater purpose to all this suffering.
And then, of course, beyond the herculean task of just “being” at work, there is the psychologically damaging chore of getting to and from there, which entails, as a prototype, the following: “To catch the 7:05 Suburban Transit bus to Edison I’d have to dash out of the store at closing time, 6:30 on the dot, jog up to the Union Square subway station, grab an R or N train, walk through the cars from the last to the first to save some time, pushing through the rush hour crush, get out at 42nd Street, then run though the twisting maze of underground passageways that led to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on 8th Avenue.”
No, there is no end to the shame and torture of really any job, let alone the more “bottom of the barrel” ones a non-committed artist is willing to take on. Night Shift is a collection for all those who have been and continue to go through it. The honesty of it all is, there is no real resolution, no cure for the ills of working, as Kolm ends with a story called “The Collector,” set during the morning of 9/11, when, after seeing the smoke set off by the first plane that crashes into one of the towers, a manager Kolm overhears at a nearby Toys ‘R’ Us barks, “I don’t give a fuck what’s going on! If you don’t get your asses inside and punch in I’ll fire all of you!” So no, there truly is no rest for the weary (writer).
One thought on “Ron Kolm’s Night Shift Elucidates The Struggle of the Artist to Work”
A very nice and thoughtful review, especially valuable for the way it highlights the subtle Marxist underpinnings of Kolm’s work. Well done.