Duke and Jill – A Review

Ron Kolm’s new collection of short stories, Duke and Jill, recounts the adventures of two woebegone, half countercultural, half drugstore-cowboy lowlifes, who shabbily inhabit the 1980s East Village, always one step ahead of eviction and the law. Duke ekes out a living by selling porno rags on the street, boosting and petty drug sales. Jill is a bit more upscale, doing phone sales and working in retail stores, ones that offer chances to pilfer on the sly. All in all, Kolm gives a good-humored, excruciatingly accurate portrait of people surviving on the margins, recalling the good-old bad days on the not-yet-gentrified Lower East Side.

By saying this, I’m not breaking new ground. A whole slew of reviewers and Bud Smith, who wrote the introduction, make the point. Smith says about the book, “Here’s this place that is described [the East Village] and these people that are gone.” Smith explains that Kolm is creating the verbal equivalent of photo-realism in his loving portraits. James Duncan in Hobo Camp Review notes that hearing these stories read by Kolm, he thought they were too wild and wooly to be true. “However, getting to know Ron really helped drive home the fact that these stories are authentic New York slices of life, offered without any sort of wink-and-nod exploitative subtext.” Mike Lindgren, writing for Medium, even warns readers to take no substitute for Kolm when trying to discover the real essence of the time. He states, “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.”

Let’s examine this less obvious strand of Kolm’s stories, how he occasionally departs from verisimilitude in order to put a capping touch to a well-made tale. Take the ending of “Duke Makes the Art Scene.” After a thankless attempt to spray graffiti in the subway, a worn-out Duke tries to do some street selling. Here, though, is none of the banter between customer and sales-guy, sarcastic yet cagey, seen in works such as Nersesian’s play Spare Change, which also focuses on sidewalk hucksters. In this passage from Nersesian, a seller urges a reluctant customer to buy the porn mags he is perusing.

George: Cheap, cheap, real cheap, cheap, real cheap. You gonna buy one?

Man: (inspecting the pages closely) I’m thinking about it.

George: Why don’t you just take it out and whack off right here while you’re at it?

Kolm’s description of a similar interchange, hardly shows a buyer who is going to haggle.

Duke was bored. He sat in the sun idly fooling with the armature. He attached it to a splintered piece of pegboard and signed his name on it with white spray paint. … About five minutes later a limo driving by stopped abruptly and a trendy looking fellow leaped out and rushed toward Duke’s spot. “I must have that piece for my collection,” he cried. … and asked Duke how much it cost. “Five hundred bucks,” Duke replied.

This marvelous episode closes, as you see, with a rather unrealistic flourish. Still, it’s not simply Kolm’s way of adding a trick ending. The story begins with Duke marveling at the prices artists are getting at East Village galleries and throughout carries on a meditation on the art market. The offering of a large bounty to Duke for some half-assed construction underlines the irrationality of this market.

What I’m suggesting is that Kolm’s work should not be evaluated simply by its degree of verisimilitude, but also mined for its insights (often presented in fabulist terms) into the troubling issues of the time, in particular the permutations undergone by youth culture as shown in how Duke and Jill adjust to the sea change in the East Village from hippie to punk styles.

The standout piece in the collection “Jill Gets Fashionable,” is a deft comment on the superficiality of poseurs:

Jill was tired of being called a hippie. She decides to change her profile, starting with a haircut. She tells her hairdresser, “Gimme a Mohawk … color it blue.” With a new hairstyle and new clothes, Jill is ready to make the new scene. Jill walked over to Avenue A. There were a gaggle of punks hanging out in front of the Pyramid Club. Jill joined them. Nobody said a word. She’d been accepted.

Duke’s attempts to blend in (often for larcenous reasons) with such disparate groups as survivalist anarchists and Hell’s Angels, account for some of the richly humorous scenes in the book. Moreover, Kolm is laying out, in terms of a fable, the “authentic” dynamics that made the East Village in the 1970s and ’80s, a center of creative energies. This was an area where multiple classes, lifestyles and fetishes mixed.

Samuel Delaney in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, and, more recently, Clayton Patterson in a series of articles for The Villager, have argued that in the past the most vibrant, vital neighborhoods in New York were those where people from varied classes and orientations met and interacted. In Times Square, they had sex. In the East Village, as Patterson so eloquently shows, they were copping, living stacked on top of each other, and sharing parks and squats. This is the truth underlined in parable form by Kolm.

And not only do Duke and Jill work their ways through various alternative milieus but they also are distant observers of various unusual intercultural crossings. So, for instance, Duke peeps through the back window of the closed “unisex haircutting boutique” to see

Bathed in unnaturally bright light, a bunch of Hell’s Angels, dressed in full colors, were slow-dancing with the male hairdressers.

Moreover, Kolm suggests that this high degree of mixing was partly due to the way individuals were scrambling to make a living through a complex assortment of part time jobs, street sales, dope peddling and pawning. Of course, this is still a common lifestyle, but in those cheaper days, there was also a larger space of free time for, to use the jazz phrase, “noodling,” killing time as unproductively as possible. And it was not just low-level hustlers like Kolm’s heroes, but artists of all stripes who cobbled together time-fractured lives, giving them a multiply dimensioned reality where there was time to interact and commune with different types they ran into. This is not experienced so much today when, if not working nine to five, people have the part-time equivalent, with no quality time left.

Duke and Jill provides a dead-on accurate presentation of the late 1980s East Village where this down-but-never-out pair of phoenixes find their best-laid plans constantly going humorously wrong. Their temporal journey through the Wild West East Side also suggests, in fairy tale form, some profound truths about what, back in the day, made this hood a place spilling over with world-shaking, creative juice.

Duke and Jill, by Ron Kolm, Unknown Press, 2015.

-Jim Feast