While reading Waiting for Nothing, I was made certain of something that I was already pretty sure of: Al Jolson was an asshole. (Owl Jolson, however….) His part in the depiction of an entertainingly jaunty and singsongy existence as a member of New York’s growing fleet of Depression-stricken homeless in the 1933 film “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!” presents a very stark and bizarre contrast to the dark, impoverished City-life that Kromer shows us. There is no romance in Waiting for Nothing, but that doesn’t stop it from becoming something special and unique. Unlike Jolson as Bumper in “Hallelujah,” Kromer sees no particular upside to his dismal circumstances, his life as an American citizen left behind because of his inability to find and keep a paying job. He gets arrested for trying to keep out of the rain. He contemplates suicide. (“Why not? It doesn’t hurt.”) There is no glory here. There is no ridiculous Black servant sitting at his side awaiting his next instruction and making eyes at him. Rather, the homosexual tension in Kromer’s book is outright, and is as uncomfortable to read as it may have been for Kromer to write, or witness, or experience – whichever is most applicable. Kromer’s narrative is pained and honest. Other writers we’ve read that documented this period were able to effectively describe the harsh landscape of this time period, but often infused it with some underlying and unwarranted sense of optimism, or included some sort of vague political slant. Kromer’s style, however, is far more direct and brutal, leaving no room for misinterpretation or extrapolation.
This reminded me of another author of the period, John Fante. Like Kromer, his method and tone exist opposite the wordy, epic approach taken by Steinbeck, or the folksy one that Guthrie pursued. Despite being more character-centric than issue-oriented, Fante’s early novels depict many concerns that arose as effects of the Depression with a similar bluntness. His best-known protagonist, the autobiographical Arturo Bandini, is constantly struggling: to become a highly-regarded writer, to find work in a bleak Los Angeles that hasn’t delivered on its shiny promises, to deal with his Italian-American heritage and intensely religious immigrant family, to pay the rent, to find a woman. While decidedly “lighter” than Kromer’s book, Fante attacks these somewhat romantic issues in a sincere and believable manner, rarely letting reality slip from his grasp. In spite of that tonal difference, each author holds true to a more basic tenet: you do what you must in order to survive.
Fante abandoned novel writing for several decades in favor of becoming a successful Hollywood screenwriter, but his Depression-era trilogy about Bandini and his family became hugely influential, particularly on Charles Bukowski, who would refer to Fante as “my God” in the forward to a later printing of 1939’s Ask the Dust (which was recently adapted into an AWFUL film starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek).