Some background is in order. Ron Kolm is perhaps best known as one of the co-founders of the Unbearables, a loose literary collective of writers and poets who take their founding principles from a grab-bag of postmodernist dicta, including the literature of constraint and the concept of the temporary autonomous zone: a scruffy tribe of proudly low-rent situationists.
Kolm himself came to New York in 1970, worked at the Strand alongside Patti Smith and Richard Hell, and made a name for himself as a poet and editor in the downtown scene’s burgeoning literary underground. Along the way he started writing, almost as an afterthought, a series of comic riffs based on the misadventures of a pair of scruffy anonymous losers he had come to know in the bars and seedy squats around St. Mark’s Place, then a festering hub of the East Village’s proto-punk scene.
The resultant stories seeped out gradually by installments, appearing in such now-legendary periodicals as Between C and D and Public Illumination Magazine. Separately, they were amusing, ribald, scabrous slices of life on the margins in a city that has now vanished. Taken collectively, they represent not only a cultural document of major historical importance but a sharply fresh set of urban parables, a group of surreal micro-narratives whose gruff wit and anarchic energy remain strikingly appealing.
“Duke and Jill do drugs,” goes the now-famous opening of the first tale. “They live on the corner of Avenue A and 10th Street, in a mostly burnt-out building… Bad things keep happening to them.” The cunning parody of the sing-songy rhythms of a children’s primer establishes the tone of sardonic whimsy that will run through the tales collectively, as well as establishing a subtle irony. Duke and Jill really are children, as it turns out, not in the Rousseauvian countercultural utopian mode — hippie platitudes come in for constant mockery and contempt in these stories — but in a far harsher sense. Their lives are dominated by the child’s self-absorption, by an essential amorality and inability to postpone gratification. Duke sees the world around him not through the child’s eyes of wonder and beauty, but as an alien terrain full of threats and menaces; he is no more able to plan or work or conceive of consequences and results than a toddler, and as a result his world is a whirling grotesquerie of drug-addled catastrophe.
The vitality of the book’s recording of a very specific time and place in the history of urban bohemia also transcends that of the mere historical. A central tenet of Kolmean aesthetic theory, which I intend to treat more fully in a series of future monographs, is the concept of witness, an idea that Kolm shares, however unlikely it may seem, with certain religious and spiritual traditions. The true writer, Kolm avers, writes not out of a desire to express himself, but rather in response to an uncentered but compelling sense of obligation, a duty to record the emotional contours of the narrative landscape in a kind of supra-categorical imperative. However sordid and unseemly Duke and Jill’s existence, it somehow still demands documentation — and that gives the stories their radical authority. Kolm is fond, in conversation, of praising a piece of vivid writing as having “the stink of reality” — a phrase he has borrowed from Ezra Pound, and a quality he bestows as a compliment. Duke and Jill have the stink of reality to spare.
And it is this authority, in turn, that establishes these stories as the truest reflection of their zeitgeist that we are likely to have. The deeper into the new millennium we get, the more the period these stories document — that is, the early 1980s — begins to sink into a hazy, sepia-toned reverie that is quite at odds with the reality of the time, with its violence and despair and fraud and paranoia. Even many of the participants or survivors of the era, one notices, are hard-put to resist romanticizing the period or speaking of it in nostalgic generalities. This is part of why the Duke and Jill stories remain so bracingly corrective and relevant. Duke and Jill are the farthest thing possible from rebels or revolutionaries; they are lazy, untalented, larcenous, petty thieves and criminals, and Kolm is ruthless, even gleeful, in documenting their greed and fecklessness. The stories have no redeeming morals, no pat endings — and despite the conclusion’s elegiac tone, which echoes Joyce’s “The Dead” as surely as the beginning references children’s literature — no future. That is their beauty, and their doom.
106 pp., paperbound, 5" x 8", $13.00